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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 resteven 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 healthcare provider about the best ways for you to limit sodium intake. You may have to reduce the number of meals you eat out. 

  • 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 healthcare 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. The best time is when you wake up right after urinating. Sudden weight gain may be a sign that your heart is having trouble. Call your healthcare provider if you gain more than 2 pounds in a day, 5 pounds in a week, or a particular amount that your healthcare 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 healthcare provider right away.

  • Talk with your healthcare provider about what level of activity is appropriate for you. Your healthcare provider can help you gauge what you can and can't do.

  • Work with your healthcare 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 healthcare provider or seek medical attention immediately.

Medical Reviewers:

  • Fetterman, Anne, RN, BSN
  • Gandelman, Glenn, MD, MPH