Heart Failure: Symptoms & Signs

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Medically Reviewed on 10/15/2015

Heart failure occurs when the heart muscle is not able to function in a manner that can sufficiently supply the body with oxygen. Congestive heart failure is the failure of the heart muscle to maintain the circulation, leading to a backup of blood in the veins that causes swelling, particularly in the lower parts of the body. Shortness of breath is another common symptom of congestive heart failure that occurs due to fluid buildup in the lungs. Fatigue and a decreased capacity to exercise are other symptoms that commonly result from heart failure. Early symptoms and signs may not be apparent, and symptoms may develop only after the condition has progressed over time.

Causes of heart failure

Any condition that damages the function of the heart can cause heart failure. Examples include coronary artery disease, myocardial infarction (heart attack), inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis), high blood pressure (hypertension), long-standing alcohol abuse, and heart valve disease. Heart failure may also occur in some cases when the exact cause is not known.


Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 10/15/2015

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