Understanding heart failure

What is heart failure?

In heart failure, the heart muscle fails to deliver sufficient amounts of blood, nutrients and oxygen to the many organs of a human body. It is a serious medical condition often associated with fluid overload in the lungs, the legs, or other parts of the body. Therefore, heart failure is frequently also referred to as congestive heart failure (CHF).

What are the symptoms and consequences of heart failure?

Typical symptoms experienced by persons with heart failure are shortness of breath (also called dyspnea), fatigue, and exercise intolerance. In persons over 65 years of age, it is the most common cause of hospitalisation.

Why does heart failure develop?

There are many conditions that lead to the development of heart failure. Frequent causes are coronary artery disease (i.e., narrowed blood vessels in the heart muscle), high blood pressure, rhythm or heart valve problems.

There are two principal problems that may lead to heart failure:

1) the heart muscle is too weak, which leads to pump failure with reduced ejection fraction (HFrEF); or
2) the heart muscle has preserved function (HFpEF) but has become too stiff to work efficiently.

It is important to diagnose heart failure as early as possible, because for many underlying causes there is very effective treatment. Diagnosis can be enhanced using blood tests (e.g. natriuretic peptide), and always should include an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound-based examination of the heart offered by a heart specialist (cardiologist).

Can heart failure be treated?

With the right treatment started in time, the grave signs and symptoms of heart failure can be controlled and frequently reversed. Since the options should be tailored to the specific needs of an individual, it is very important to collect information on possible choices as early as possible.

The range of remedies that can be applied in patients with heart failure is very wide. It almost always includes medical drugs (tablets) and changes in lifestyle and diet. Some patients benefit from the implantation of dedicated devices like a pacemaker or defibrillator, and some from surgery up to the possibility of a heart transplantation or the implantation of a ventricular assist device (VAD). Although heart failure is serious, most patients will benefit from treatment and can continue to lead active and enjoyable lives.

ESC Guidelines for Heart Failure

What patients need to know

This guide for patients from the European Society of Cardiology aims to provide an overview of the latest evidence-based recommendations for the diagnosis and treatment of heart failure.

In particular, it should help patients to understand the:

  • main types of heart failure
  • medicines used to treat heart failure
  • devices that may be appropriate
  • importance of rehabilitation
  • management by a multidisciplinary team
  • importance of self-care in managing your own condition

Learn more


A series of 9 simple, captivating animations explaining heart failure and its treatment.

These narrated animations explain how a healthy heart works, what happens to it in heart failure and how various treatments work to improve your health.


In this section you can watch, listen or read interviews with other people with heart failure and their caregivers.


and share your own views and experiences with other patients, families and caregivers.

heartfailurematters.org is a European Society of Cardiology website

The heartfailurematters.org website was developed under the direction of the Heart Failure Association of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC). The ESC is a world leader in the discovery and dissemination of best practices in cardiovascular medicine. Our members and decision-makers are healthcare professionals who volunteer their time and expertise to represent professionals in the field of cardiology in Europe and beyond.

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