Let's Talk About Congestive Heart Failure
Learn how to manage it and live well
Congestive heart failure. We know it sounds like a terminal illness. But VA patients who have it can live a long time with a great quality of life. All you need to know is how to manage it.
What is congestive heart failure?
Some people describe your body as a car and your heart as an engine. When you have congestive heart failure, your engine is weak and because of that, fluid backs into your lungs. It can feel like you're drowning or suffocating. It's up to your health care team to determine what caused your engine to fail. You can also adopt some new approaches to eating, drinking, and sleep.
Veterans commonly ask their health care team how to deal with cravings, especially for salt. You should limit salt intake to 2,000 milligrams a day. That's barely a teaspoon. Great substitutes for salt include garlic, red or black pepper, and thyme. We promise, after four weeks you won't miss the salt. The next time you're at a restaurant, you'll notice every bit of salt.
Cravings to drink
You should limit your drinking to 64 ounces a day. VA recommends chewing gum or candy, sugarless if you're diabetic. Some Veterans recommend freezing grapes. It helps deal with cravings to drink. Freeze whatever fruit you like. Another Veteran recommends freezing your water bottle. Instead of just drinking it straight, freeze it, and then you can sip on it for several hours.
It's your health care team's job to determine what caused the engine to fail or to weaken. One of the most common things is lousy plumbing. We can fix that with a procedure called heart catheterization. We can also remedy it sometimes with bypass surgery. In addition to bad plumbing, it can be a leaky valve or tight valve where the opening is tiny. When this occurs, not enough blood gets through the opening, making it very easy for fluid to back up in the lungs.
Worries with sleep
If a Veteran has a bigger tongue, it can block their breathing tube. When this happens, not enough normal oxygen enters the lungs. Your lungs could collapse, and you may stop breathing. Luckily, our brain wakes us up pretty quickly when this happens. Because sleep can be tough, you may have trouble entering deep REM sleep. When you don't get enough REM sleep, you may be fatigued the next day. You may also have problems with your memory, headaches when you wake up, uncontrolled blood pressure, and a rapid heartbeat.
Many Veterans wear a mask called the CPAP device. It keeps your lungs open, so you won't stop breathing. You also won't wake up in the middle of the night, which can help you get better sleep.
Hints of congestive heart failure
If you're short of breath when you lay down and must sit up to breathe, or perhaps you've gained 3 pounds overnight, then that's most likely congestive heart failure. Generally, that means the fluid is back, and you had too much salt or water.
Your health care team may recommend you double up on water pills. Try doubling up for two to three days until you lose those 3 pounds of extra fluid. If that doesn't work, schedule an appointment right away. If you have any questions about whether you have too much fluid in your body or are perhaps dehydrated, send your health care team a Secure Message (sign in required).
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Six Ways to Combat Heart Failure
Understanding Heart Failure (Veterans Health Library)
Heart Failure (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute)
Updated November 3, 2020