Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School



The first symptom of heart failure often is fatigue. As the condition worsens, shortness of breath and wheezing occur during exertion. Eventually, shortness of breath and wheezing occur when you are resting.

As fluid accumulates in the lungs, people with heart failure may begin to sleep propped up with pillows. This makes breathing easier. There also can be a chronic cough due to fluid accumulation in the lungs.

Fluid also can collect in the legs and ankles, causing swelling. In people who are less active, collected fluid can accumulate in the middle of the body. Some people urinate several times during the night as the kidneys drain off some of this excess fluid. As the body accumulates more and more fluid, the person may experience significant weight gain.

Heart failure usually affects both sides of the heart. But in some people it affects only one side. When heart failure affects mainly the left side of the heart, the symptoms are more likely to involve breathing difficulties. When mainly the right side is affected, the main symptoms may be leg swelling and abdominal swelling.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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