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HomeYour HealthConditionsHeart ConditionsWhat Is Heart Failure?What Is Heart Failure?

Published on April 22, 2024

Authored by Pfizer Medical Team

Heart failure, also known as congestive heart failure, occurs when the heart is not working as it should to pump blood and oxygen around the body. It affects more than 110,000 Australians and over 80,000 New Zealanders1,2, and may lead to serious medical consequences, including being life-threatening.

Getting to the heart of the problem

The heart is essentially a muscle that acts as a pump. It receives de-oxygenated (or “used”) blood from the body, and then pumps it to the lungs where it becomes oxygenated. Once the blood has “picked up” oxygen in the lungs, it travels back to the heart where it is pumped back out to the body.

When the heart is damaged or weakened in some way, it is not able to do its job as effectively. In order to continue supplying oxygenated blood and nutrients to the tissues in the body, the heart will initially try to compensate to keep up with the demand. For example, the heart muscle might stretch or thicken or try to pump faster so that it can continue to move blood around the body. The blood vessels may also narrow to maintain blood pressure and divert blood to our vital organs (such as the brain, heart and kidneys). Unfortunately, the heart can only compensate in these ways for a limited time – and, eventually, the heart may become  less effective (or weaker) – progressively leading to heart failure.

Heart failure can affect the left side of the heart, the right side, or both.

How can you know if you have heart failure?

Heart failure may be suspected based on the symptoms a person experiences. Although some people experience no symptoms, others may experience a range of symptoms. Symptoms can vary depending on the type and severity of heart failure - however, the most common symptoms include:

Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
Swelling in the ankles, legs, feet or abdomen
Other signs and symptoms may include increased heart rate, loss of appetite, coughing or wheezing, chest pain and confusion.

In order to make a diagnosis, doctors will take a thorough medical history and conduct a physical examination, as well organise for some investigative tests, such as blood tests, chest x-ray, ECG and cardiac echocardiogram (ultrasound).

Who is at risk?

Heart failure occurs as a result of having a weakened or damaged heart for any reason. The most common causes of heart failure include coronary artery disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Other conditions that can lead to heart failure include: infections in the heart, heart defects from birth, abnormal heartbeat, thyroid disorder, alcohol or drug abuse, and use of certain medications (e.g., cancer drugs). There are some hereditary diseases that lead to heart failure.

Heart failure is more common in people with the following risk factors:

  • Being 65 years or older

  • Being overweight

  • Having had a previous heart attack

  • Being male

  • Being Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander or Maori

Why Is It Important To Treat?

Heart failure can have severe consequences. Symptoms may worsen over time. Heart failure can lead to kidney or liver failure, sudden cardiac arrest (heart stops beating suddenly), and death.

In most cases, heart failure is a chronic condition that needs lifelong maintenance. Because everyone is different, talk to your doctor about how to best manage your heart failure, and follow-up regularly. It’s important to work with your doctor to diagnose and manage heart failure.


1. Key Statistics: Heart Failure | The Heart Foundation. Accessed 14/02/24.

2. New Heart Failure Research Findings - Heart Foundation. Accessed 14/02/24.

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