Aging & Health A to Z
Care & Treatment
The first step in managing heart failure is to identify and treat its cause or causes. For example:
- Your healthcare professional will treat high blood pressure with diuretic medications (water pills), a blood pressure medicine known as an Ace-inhibitor to help your heart pump easier, a low-salt diet, and will advise you to lose weight, if necessary.
- Many heart valve problems can be corrected with surgery.
- Drugs or angioplasty can treat coronary artery blockage.
- Thyroid problems can affect how the heart and blood vessels function. Your doctor can use drugs, surgery, or radiation therapy to manage an overactive thyroid, and may prescribe thyroid hormone pills to manage an underactive thyroid.
- Certain medications (such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs), can aggravate heart failure and you may need to stop or adjust these. Keep a list of medications, including dietary supplements and over-the-counter drugs, that you take with you at all times, and review these with your healthcare provider at each check-up.
- You will need to measure your weight periodically and notify your doctor if you begin to gain weight to avoid having severe episodes of heart failure and severe fluid build-up.
Medications for Treating Heart Failure
Diuretics (water pills) and ACE inhibitors are the two most common medications for treating heart failure.
These pills can increase urine production and help eliminate excess fluid from the body. That decreases fluid buildup and the amount of work the heart must do. Diuretics are usually prescribed as pills, but your doctor may use an intravenous dose to get the medicine into your bloodstream faster in cases of acute heart failure.
Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
ACE inhibitors are especially useful for people with systolic heart failure. Treatment with ACE inhibitors can improve your quality of life and reduce symptoms. They also help you be more physically active, which is always good for maintaining health and function.
Potential side effects of diurectics and ACE inhibitors include very low blood pressure or changes in the blood’s chemical makeup. Your healthcare professional will check your blood pressure and kidney function regularly.
In older adults, ACE inhibitors may sometimes cause a loss of taste or a troubling cough. Be sure to let your healthcare professional know if you have these side effects.
Other Medications for Heart Failure
Depending upon the type and degree of heart failure, your doctor may also prescribe:
- Angiotensin II receptor blockers, if you can’t tolerate the side effects of ACE inhibitors
- Beta-blockers to slow the heart rate and block excess stimulation of the heart muscle
- Nitroglycerin to dilate (widen) blood vessels and relieve chest pain
- Aldosterone receptor blockers to block the action of the hormone aldosterone, which promotes salt and fluid retention.
The medication digoxin has long been used for heart failure, but recent studies have called into question whether its potential for harm may outweigh its potential to help. It should not be used as a first-line treatment for heart failure. However, it may be appropriate in selected patients who are already taking other medications that are strongly recommended for heart failure.
Updated: September 2015
Posted: March 2012