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A to Z: Congestive Heart Failure

May also be called: CHF, Heart Failure

Congestive (cun-JES-tiv) heart failure is a condition in which the heart can’t pump enough blood to meet the needs of the rest of the body.

More to Know

The heart’s main function is to propel fresh blood throughout the circulatory system to give body parts the oxygen and nutrients they need. In heart failure, the heart cannot perform this function, either because the heart muscle itself is too weak, or because blood is not flowing well through the body, which makes the heart have to work harder and harder to move it. When something weakens the heart or causes it to function improperly, the kidneys receive less blood than they should and filter less fluid out of the body and into the urine. This fluid can then build up, or congest, in the lungs, liver, digestive tract, around the eyes, and in the legs and feet.

A person’s heart might not work right for many reasons, including congenital heart defects, certain forms of heart disease, abnormal heartbeats (arrhythmias), high blood pressure, heart attack, and damage to the heart from infection, alcohol abuse, or the use of certain illegal and prescription drugs.

Babies and young children with congestive heart failure have poor growth because their bodies have to work so hard to breathe and eat. Older children and teenagers, who have generally completed their growth, might have more breathing problems with heart failure. Congestive heart failure can cause fatigue, weakness, coughing, breathing problems, swelling around the feet and ankles, and fast or irregular heartbeats. Eventually children with heart failure might have weight gain from retaining so much fluid. Over time, poor circulation and fluid buildup can lead to kidney failure, liver damage, and stroke. If it goes untreated, congestive heart failure can be life threatening.

People with congestive heart failure can take medications to improve blood flow and remove extra fluid. Lifestyle changes may be needed, such as restricting certain sports and doing light rather than intense exercise. Babies and older children alike may need feeding tubes and dietary supplements to help them grow. In some cases, surgery to treat an underlying problem or transplant a new heart may be necessary.

Keep in Mind

In many cases, it’s possible to control heart failure through lifestyle changes, taking the right medicines, and treating any conditions that can cause the heart to work improperly. Sometimes, however, no treatments or surgery will keep the condition from getting worse. In children with congestive heart failure, it is important that they get optimal nutrition to aid growth and the support they need to live an active, healthy life.

All A to Z dictionary entries are regularly reviewed by KidsHealth medical experts.