Living with - Heart failure

If you have heart failure, it's important to look after your own health and wellbeing, with support from those involved in your care.

Looking after yourself

It's very important to take good care of yourself if you have heart failure.

Have a healthy diet

A healthy, balanced diet can help improve your symptoms and general health.

balanced diet should include:

You may also be given advice about dietary changes that can specifically help with heart failure, such as limiting the amount of fluid you drink.

Exercise regularly

Regular physical activity can also help improve your symptoms and general health.

If you have heart failure, you should be offered an exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation programme.

These programmes vary widely across the country, but most cover 1 or more of the following:

  • exercise
  • education
  • emotional support

They're usually run in hospitals or community clinics by teams that include nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and exercise specialists.

Before you start, you'll have an assessment to find out how much exercise you can safely do.

A programme of exercise can then be tailored specifically for you.

The education part of the programme will give you information on healthy eating and practical ways to reduce the risk of further damage to your heart.

Want to know more?

Stop smoking

If you smoke, stopping smoking can improve your overall health and reduce your risk of many other health problems.

Speak to your GP or an NHS stop smoking service if you think you'll need help quitting.

They can provide support and, if necessary, prescribe stop smoking treatments.

Limit your alcohol consumption

You can usually continue to drink alcohol if you have heart failure, but it's advisable not to exceed the recommended limits of more than 14 alcohol units a week.

If your heart failure is directly related to drinking alcohol, you may be advised to stop entirely.

Get some tips on cutting down on alcohol

Get vaccinated

Heart failure can put a significant strain on your body and mean you're more vulnerable to infections.

Everyone with heart failure should be offered the annual flu jab and the one-off pneumococcal vaccination.

You can get these vaccinations at your GP surgery or a local pharmacy that offers a vaccination service.

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Regular reviews and monitoring

You'll have regular contact with your GP or care team to monitor your condition at least every 6 months.

These appointments may involve:

  • talking about your symptoms, such as whether they're affecting your normal activities or are getting worse
  • a discussion about your medication, including any side effects
  • tests to monitor your health

It's also a good opportunity to ask any questions you have or raise any other issues you'd like to discuss with your care team.

You may be asked to help monitor your condition between appointments.

For example, your care team may suggest weighing yourself regularly so any changes in your weight, which could be a sign of a problem, are picked up quickly.

Contact your GP or care team if your symptoms are getting worse or you develop new symptoms.

Your care team will advise you about when and where to seek advice if there's a potential problem.

Travelling and driving

Travelling

Having heart failure shouldn't prevent you travelling or going on holiday, as long as you feel well enough and your condition is well controlled. But check with your doctor before you travel.

It may be advisable to avoid travelling to high altitudes or hot, humid places because this may put extra strain on your heart.

Flying won't usually cause problems, but if your heart failure is severe, your legs and ankles may swell and breathing may become more difficult.

If you're flying, inform the airline of your condition. They may provide a wheelchair or electric car so you can avoid having to walk long distances at the airport.

If you're travelling and sitting still for a long time, either in a car, coach or on a plane, you should do simple exercises to reduce the risk of blood clots. Wearing flight socks or compression stockings while flying should also help.

It may be a good idea to take 2 sets of medication with you when you travel. Carry them in different places in case you lose one, and make a list of the medication you take and what it's for.

Having heart failure shouldn't stop you getting travel insurance, but you may have to find a specialist company that'll insure you.

Read more about travelling with a heart condition.

Driving

You may need to tell the DVLA if you have heart failure.

Read more about heart failure and driving.

Emotions, relationships and sex

Being diagnosed with heart failure can be a shock. Some people feel scared, anxious, depressed or angry. These feelings are completely normal.

Some people also become depressed. Speak to your GP or care team if you feel unable to enjoy the things you used to or cope with everyday life.

You may find your physical relationship with your partner changes after your diagnosis because of worries about having a heart attack, or because you lose interest in sex or are unable to get an erection, which can sometimes be caused by heart failure medication.

You can discuss any worries or problems you have with your GP or care team if you feel unable to talk to your family or friends. They'll be able to advise you and arrange support.

You may also find it helpful to join a heart support group, where you can talk to other people with heart conditions whose circumstances are similar to yours.

You can call the British Heart Foundation's heart helpline on 0300 330 3311 to find out about support groups in your area.

Work and financial help

Can I continue working?

If you're well enough, you can keep working for as long as you feel able. With the right support, staying in work can make you feel better and give you financial security. 

Talk to your employer as soon as you feel your heart failure is affecting your ability to do your job so you can find a solution that suits both of you. For example, it may be possible for you to work part-time.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 requires employers to make reasonable adjustments to working practices or premises to help a person with a disability.

Where possible, this might include changing or modifying tasks, altering work patterns, installing special equipment, allowing time off to attend appointments, or helping with travel to work.

What happens if I can no longer work?

If you can't continue working as a result of heart failure, you may be able to claim disability and sickness benefits.

Find out more about benefits if you have a long-term illness or disability

Help for carers

Carers may also be entitled to some benefits.

Read more about benefits for carers.

Caring for someone with heart failure

Looking after someone with heart failure can mean anything from helping with hospital or GP visits and collecting prescriptions, to full-time caring.

There are many ways you can support someone with heart failure.

Heart failure can be disabling and distressing, and many people with the condition find it a huge relief to share their concerns and fears with someone.

As a carer, if you can attend GP and hospital appointments with the person with heart failure, you can encourage them to ask the right questions while you note down the answers.

You could also provide the doctor with additional information or insights into the person's condition, which can be helpful for planning the right treatment.

Another way you can help is by watching for warning signs that the person's heart failure is getting worse or they're not responding to treatment. 

Contact the person's doctor if you notice a new symptom or their current symptoms are getting worse.

Signs to look out for include:

  • shortness of breath that isn't related to usual exercise or activity
  • increased swelling of the legs or ankles
  • significant weight gain over a few days 
  • swelling or pain in their tummy
  • trouble sleeping or waking up short of breath
  • a dry, hacking cough
  • increasing tiredness or feeling tired all the time

See the care and support guide for information about all aspects of caring for someone with a long-term condition.

What will happen towards the end?

Heart failure usually gets gradually worse over time. It may eventually reach a point where it becomes very severe and it's unlikely the person will live much longer.

Palliative care will usually begin when heart failure reaches this stage.

This involves treatment to help you feel as comfortable as possible, as well as psychological, spiritual and social support for both you and your family.

You can choose whether you want palliative care and where you'd like it to be provided.

It can be provided:

  • at home
  • in a hospice
  • in hospital

Plan in advance

It's a good idea to plan for your care in advance, as you may not be able to make decisions about your treatment when you become severely ill.

Find out more about planning ahead if you have a terminal illness

Page last reviewed: 26/10/2018
Next review due: 26/10/2021