Heart Failure: Breathe More Easily
One of the earliest symptoms of heart failure is shortness of breath. When your heart can't function well enough to pump the blood out of your heart, this causes blood to back up in the blood vessels leading to the lungs. Fluid then leaks from your blood vessels into the air sacs in your lungs. This makes it difficult for oxygen to enter the blood, causing shortness of breath.
You may experience breathlessness during exertion, such as when carrying groceries, climbing a flight of stairs, or at rest — even at night when sleeping.
You can do several things to help yourself breathe more easily:
Eat a healthy diet and avoid sodium (salt). Keeping your sodium intake at a minimum is more than just not adding salt to food. Many prepared and fast foods already have high amounts of sodium added, so it is important to read the nutritional information on packaging. Since water and salt tend to travel together, limiting your sodium intake will reduce the amount of fluid your body retains. Talk with your health care provider about the best ways for you to limit sodium intake.
Pay attention to what your body is telling you. If you become fatigued during an activity, stop and rest. You can always postpone finishing a task that wears you out.
Weigh yourself every day, or as often as your health care provider tells you to. A good time to weigh yourself regularly is in the morning, before breakfast, but you should weigh yourself at the same time every day. Sudden weight gain may be a sign that your heart is having trouble. Call your health care provider if you gain more than 2 pounds in a day, 5 pounds in a week, or a particular amount that your health care provider has asked you to report.
Sleep with several pillows propped behind your head and shoulders to make it easier to breathe at night. If you notice that you need to use many pillows, or more pillows than usual, to help you breathe comfortably, call your health care provider right away.
Talk with your health care provider about what level of activity is appropriate for you. Your health care provider can help you gauge what you can and can't do.
Work with your health care provider to develop an aerobic exercise program, then exercise every day. This will strengthen both your heart and lungs and help reduce the amount of fluid that seeps into your lungs.
Shortness of breath can be a serious problem. If you notice a sudden worsening or you feel breathless while at rest when you never have before, call your health care provider or seek medical attention immediately.
- Foster, Sara, RN, MPH
- MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician