• CHF refers to the heart’s inability to pump enough blood to satisfy the needs of the body.
  • The major cause of CHF is coronary heart disease, along with a history of past heart attacks.
  • Treatment includes medications, lifestyle changes and surgery.
Congestive heart failure (CHF), also called chronic heart failure or congestive cardiac failure (CCF), is an ongoing condition in which the heart muscle is weakened and can’t pump as well as it normally does. The main pumping chambers of the heart (the ventricles) become larger or thicker, and either can’t contract (squeeze) or can’t relax as well as they should. This triggers fluid retention, particularly in the lungs, legs and abdomen.

The major causes of CHF include coronary heart disease, hypertension, cardiomyopathy and other heart diseases. Of these, coronary heart disease (usually accompanied by a history of past heart attacks) is by far the most common.

The major factors that contribute to coronary heart disease include:
  • obesity
  • a diet high in saturated fats and cholesterol
  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • smoking
  • physical inactivity.
Chronic heart failure is more common in elderly people. The survival rate for people with this disorder depends on the severity of their condition. Treatments include medication, lifestyle changes and (sometimes) surgery.

Symptoms of congestive heart failure

Symptoms of congestive heart failure include:
  • new or worsening shortness of breath (particularly during physical activity or waking you up at night)
  • weight gain
  • muscular fatigue, tiredness
  • swelling of ankles or legs
  • swelling of abdomen
  • dizziness
  • heart palpitations
  • chest pain or discomfort in parts of the upper body
  • unexplained coughing and wheezing
  • loss of appetite
  • constipation.

Causes of congestive heart failure

The heart is a double pump made up of four chambers. Deoxygenated blood from the veins enters the right upper chamber (right atrium or auricle), is passed to the right lower chamber (right ventricle), and then pumped to the lungs. Oxygenated blood from the lungs enters the left upper chamber (left atrium or auricle) and then enters the left lower chamber (left ventricle). The blood is then pumped around the body, under pressure, via arteries.

In a person with CHF, the left ventricle does not empty properly. This leads to increased pressure in the atria (upper chambers) and the nearby veins. This backlog of blood triggers fluid retention (oedema) in the lungs, abdominal organs and legs. This affects the kidneys, interferes with their function and leads to retention of salt and water, causing oedema.

In some people with heart failure, rather than failed pumping of the blood from the left ventricle, there is failed relaxation of the left ventricle. This also leads to blood pooling under back-pressure.

CHF can be caused by several conditions, including:
  • Past heart attacks from coronary heart disease – can lead to scarring in the heart muscle. This is the most common cause for CHF.
  • High blood pressure (hypertension) – the high pressure in the arteries means that the heart must keep pumping more forcefully. It may not be able to keep it up.
  • Heart valve disease – damaged heart valves may allow the blood to flow backwards or may obstruct forward flow.
  • Congenital heart disease – heart abnormalities may be present from birth, such as defective valves or abnormal communications between heart chambers.
  • Cardiomyopathy – this condition is characterised by enlargement of the heart muscle, where the left ventricle enlarges to compensate for poor contraction.
  • Myocarditis – viruses or other infections may damage the heart muscle.
  • Heart arrhythmia – rapid heartbeat with irregularity, over a long period of time, can also lead to inefficient contraction and heart failure.
  • Thyroid disease – the thyroid gland produces too much of its hormone, thyroxine. This increases the work of the heart and can lead to heart failure.

Factors that can worsen symptoms of CHF

The symptoms of CHF can be worsened by a number of factors, including:
  • anaemia
  • too much salt or alcohol in the diet
  • pregnancy
  • some infections
  • kidney diseases
  • lung diseases.

Diagnosis of CHF

CHF can be confirmed with a variety of tests, including:
  • x-rays
  • echocardiography
  • exercise stress test
  • electrocardiogram (ECG)
  • lung function tests
  • angiography
  • blood tests.

Treatment for CHF

Treatment may include:
  • medicines – such as diuretics (to remove excess fluid), ACE inhibitors (to open up blood vessels, reduce blood pressure and reduce sodium retention and water retention), digitalis (to help the heart pump more effectively), vasodilators (to open up blood vessels) and certain beta-blockers (to slow the heart rate and reduce its work)
  • addressing the underlying disorder – for example, treatment of high blood pressure
  • lifestyle changes – such as regular gentle physical activity, losing excess body fat, stopping smoking, adhering to a low-fat and low-salt diet, restricting alcohol and having adequate rest
  • surgery – to replace narrowed or leaking heart valves
  • coronary bypass surgery – in some cases
  • heart transplant – in extreme cases.

Where to get help

  • Your doctor
  • Heart Foundation Health Information Service Tel. 1300 36 27 87

Things to remember

  • CHF refers to the heart’s inability to pump enough blood to satisfy the needs of the body.
  • The major cause of CHF is coronary heart disease, along with a history of past heart attacks.
  • Treatment includes medications, lifestyle changes and surgery.
  • Heart failure,, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. USA. More information here.

More information


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Heart conditions

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This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by: Heart Foundation

Last updated: January 2015

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