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Signs Your Heart's Not Working Properly, According to the Mayo Clinic

There are warning signs that can indicate there’s a problem with your heart.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Before COVID-19, heart disease was the number one cause of death in America, and it will soon take its place atop that ignominious list again. How to avoid it? The Mayo Clinic—the nonprofit medical center focused on integrated health care, education, and research—says "Heart failure can be ongoing (chronic), or your condition may start suddenly (acute). Heart failure signs and symptoms may include" the following. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus


You May Have Shortness of Breath

Woman having breath difficulties.

Known as dyspnea, shortness of breath may occur "when you exert yourself or when you lie down," says the Mayo Clinic. "Few sensations are as frightening as not being able to get enough air. It's often described as an intense tightening in the chest, air hunger, difficulty breathing, breathlessness or a feeling of suffocation. If you have unexplained shortness of breath, especially if it comes on suddenly and is severe, see your doctor as soon as possible."


You May Feel Fatigue and Weakness

Woman sleeping on the couch in the living room.

"Fatigue can be caused by many illnesses and by medicines. But a constant, new fatigue also can sometimes signal heart failure (a condition in which the heart fails to pump well) or coronary artery disease," says Harvard Health.


You May Have Swelling

Woman holding leg in pain

Known as edema, swelling in your legs, ankles and feet may be a sign of a heart issue. "Edema is swelling caused by excess fluid trapped in your body's tissues," says the Mayo Clinic. "Although edema can affect any part of your body, you may notice it more in your hands, arms, feet, ankles and legs. Edema can be the result of medication, pregnancy or an underlying disease — often congestive heart failure, kidney disease or cirrhosis of the liver."


You May Have a Rapid or Irregular Heartbeat

Young woman feeling sick and holding her chest in pain at home.

"Heart rhythm problems (heart arrhythmias) occur when the electrical impulses that coordinate your heartbeats don't work properly, causing your heart to beat too fast, too slow or irregularly," says the Mayo Clinic. "Heart arrhythmias (uh-RITH-me-uhs) may feel like a fluttering or racing heart and may be harmless. However, some heart arrhythmias may cause bothersome — sometimes even life-threatening — signs and symptoms."


You May Have a Persistent Cough or Wheezing

Man sneezing into his elbow.

A persistent cough or wheezing may be accompanied by "white or pink blood-tinged phlegm," says the Mayo Clinic.


You May Feel an Increased Need to Urinate at Night

Door handle open to toilet can see toilet

"Up to 50% of patients with heart failure suffer from urinary incontinence (UI) and an overactive bladder (OAB)," says one study. Adds the Cleveland Clinic: "Frequent urination also can be a sign of several more serious conditions, including a bladder infection, prostate problems, a heart condition, leg swelling, or interstitial cystitis (also called painful bladder syndrome), which is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the bladder."


You May Have a Swelling of Your Abdomen 

Middle aged woman suffering from abdominal pain while sitting on bed at home

"Ascites is a condition in which fluid collects in spaces within your abdomen. If severe, ascites may be painful," reports Johns Hopkins. "The problem may keep you from moving around comfortably. Ascites can set the stage for an infection in your abdomen. Fluid may also move into your chest and surround your lungs. This makes it hard to breathe."


You May Have Very Rapid Weight Gain from Fluid Retention

weight loss

"Weight change is the earliest sign of a problem with fluid balance. Most people will retain 8 to 15 pounds of excess fluid before they see leg and belly swelling. However, symptoms such as coughing and shortness of breath, loose stools, nausea and feeling full when without eating much may develop at the 5-to-7 pound mark" Dr. Eldrin Lewis, a heart failure specialist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital, tells Harvard Health. Call a doctor.  "Don't wait until you don't feel well, you may have gained 5 or more pounds by then and could be well on your way to a serious problem."


You May Have a Lack of Appetite and Nausea

lack of appetite

"Loss of appetite is a prevalent problem among patients with heart failure that may lead to undernutrition," says one study. "Health care professionals should routinely assess appetite and discuss patients' experiences of appetite, nutrition intake and body weight and give appropriate nutritional advice with respect to individual needs."

RELATED: The Easiest Way to Avoid a Heart Attack, Say Doctors


When to See a Doctor

Health visitor and a senior man during home visit

The Mayo Clinic says: "See your doctor if you think you might be experiencing signs or symptoms of heart failure. Seek emergency treatment if you experience any of the following:

  • Chest pain
  • Fainting or severe weakness
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat associated with shortness of breath, chest pain or fainting
  • Sudden, severe shortness of breath and coughing up pink, foamy mucus"

And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Alek Korab
Alek Korab is a Co-Founder and Managing Editor of the ETNT Health channel on Eat This, Not That! Read more about Alek
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