Decompensated heart failure (DHF) means that symptoms from heart failure are severe enough to require immediate medical attention. Dyspnea or shortness of breath is the most common symptom of DHF.

Heart failure affects 6.2 million adults living in the United States. It may be acute with symptoms developing quickly or chronic with symptoms worsening over time as heart muscles weaken. You may experience a variety of symptoms, including trouble breathing.

When symptoms from heart failure are severe enough to require immediate medical treatment, it is known as decompensated heart failure (DHF).

While there’s no cure for heart failure, treatments are available that may help reduce or provide relief for some symptoms. In addition to the information below, you can read more about heart failure here.

DHF means that symptoms of heart failure are severe enough to need prompt medical attention.

DHF can occur suddenly without a prior heart failure diagnosis, or it may be the result of worsening symptoms in an individual already diagnosed with heart failure.

Some reasons you may experience acute DHF include:

You may experience worsening symptoms with already diagnosed heart due to:

  • not following your heart failure treatment plan, such as not taking medications as prescribed
  • arrhythmias
  • fevers and infections
  • pregnancy

One of the most common signs of DHF is shortness of breath or dyspnea.

Difficulty breathing can be associated with many conditions like allergies, asthma, and anxiety, but if you have been diagnosed with heart failure or have a family history of heart failure, it should not be ignored.

Other signs of DHF can include:

  • swollen legs and ankles
  • fatigue
  • trouble breathing while lying flat (orthopnea)
  • weight gain
  • nighttime coughing

Compensated heart failure means your symptoms are stabilized, or you are not experiencing symptoms because of your heart failure.

This differs from DHF where prompt medical care is needed for the symptoms you are experiencing.

There is no cure for heart failure, but medications may be helpful in reducing the symptoms you experience.

Treatment for DHF focuses on reducing symptoms and protecting organs like the heart, kidneys, and lungs from more damage.

Doctors will need to investigate what caused your heart failure to determine the appropriate treatment plan. Lab tests and diagnostic testing may be used to evaluate how well organs are functioning. These tests can also reveal the extent of any damage.

If DHF is suspected, your doctor may order:

Heart failure is often treated with a variety of medications. It’s important to let your doctor know about any medications you are currently taking.

To treat DHF, your doctor may recommend:

  • Diuretics: Also known as water pills, diuretics can help reduce water buildup in the body and reduce blood pressure.
  • Vasodilators: Vasodilators can widen blood vessels and lower blood pressure.

A heart transplant or other cardiovascular surgery may be considered depending on the cause and extent of the heart failure. For example, when a blockage is involved, stenting or bypass surgery can be necessary.

DHF is a serious condition that can be fatal. Your specific outlook and life expectancy will depend on factors like:

  • age
  • general health
  • exact cause of your heart failure
  • how much bodily damage you have already experienced due to your heart failure
  • how responsive your body is to treatments

A 2020 survey indicated that 20% of people with acute heart failure died within 1 year of receiving hospital care for it. Some factors that were linked to their deaths included:

  • their age
  • the presence of other health conditions like kidney disease, anemia, or heart disease
  • living in a low income area with a high level of income inequality

If an individual has DHF, their heart failure symptoms are severe enough to require immediate medical attention. DHF may occur in those with no prior heart failure diagnosis. It can also occur when previously managed chronic heart failure symptoms worsen.

Trouble breathing is the most common symptom of DHF, but you may also notice an increase in other symptoms like swelling in your legs. There is no cure for heart failure, but treatments may be able to reduce the symptoms you’re experiencing.