Heart failure can cause swelling in the feet. It can also cause swelling in other areas of the body, such as the stomach. The swelling may come and go, but it typically lasts for long periods. Swelling that happens just once and does not recur may have another cause, such as an injury.

Heart failure causes fluid retention in the body, and this can lead to several conditions, including edema. Edema refers to swelling as a result of excess fluid, and it can affect various parts of the body, including the ankles and feet.

As many conditions or circumstances, including pregnancy, can cause swelling in the feet, it is important to see a doctor rather than trying to self-diagnose.

In this article, we describe the signs and symptoms of heart failure that a person might experience alongside swollen feet. We also provide information on treatment, when a person should contact their doctor, and the other possible causes of swollen feet.

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Heart failure makes it more difficult for the heart to pump blood through the body, which leads to fluid accumulation elsewhere in the body, especially in the feet and legs.

A person may experience the following issues:

  • the feet suddenly looking larger or puffy
  • the shoes not fitting as well as usual
  • pain in the feet or legs
  • walking becoming more difficult
  • swelling elsewhere in the body, such as the abdomen
  • unexplained weight gain

Swelling in the feet and ankles may be less severe when a person first wakes and worsen as their day goes on.

Some other symptoms of heart failure that a person might notice include:

  • getting easily winded
  • finding exercise difficult
  • unexplained fatigue or weakness, even if a person is well-rested
  • pain in the right upper stomach, under the ribs
  • heart palpitations

Heart failure is a life threatening medical condition that a person cannot treat with home remedies or lifestyle changes alone. Most people require the ongoing support of a cardiologist and some may need to take heart medication for the rest of their lives.

Lifestyle adjustments

For people living with heart failure, behavioral changes can make a significant difference in their quality of life. A person can adopt the following measures:

  • Reducing the amount of salt in the diet: High sodium foods include prepackaged, fried, and processed foods, such as ready meals and potato chips. The body needs some sodium to function, so it is important not to eliminate it from the diet. Instead, people should limit it to less than 1,500—2,000 milligrams per day.
  • Increasing or maintaining physical activity levels, where possible: A doctor should be able to provide advice on how to create and stick to a healthy exercise routine. Exercise can help the heart function more efficiently, and it may also address other risk factors, such as excess body weight and high blood pressure.
  • Managing stress where possible: People can practice stress management techniques, such as meditating, going to therapy, or journaling. People with heart failure may find that their symptoms get worse during emotional crises.

Learn how to follow a heart-healthy diet here.

It is also important to monitor symptoms. A doctor may recommend at-home blood pressure monitoring or regular heart health checkups.

People can check their own blood pressure at home. Learn how to do this here.

Medical treatment

There is no cure for heart failure, but treatment can greatly prolong a person’s life and reduce their symptoms. A doctor may recommend the following treatments:

  • Medication: A combination of medications, including beta-blockers, can help. The right drugs for a person will depend on their lifestyle and family history, among other factors.
  • Implantable devices: Various devices can help the heart work better. A left ventricular assist device, for example, can help the left ventricle work better and reduce the overall effort of the heart. It can be a good option for a person who is waiting for a heart transplant.
  • Heart transplant: Some people with heart failure, especially those with severe heart failure who have a good chance of survival with treatment, may need a heart transplant.
  • Surgery: In some cases of heart failure, surgery may help. Surgeons may perform various procedures, such as cardiac catheterization or coronary artery bypass surgery.
  • Rest: People may benefit from taking frequent breaks from standing to elevate the feet, which can ease swelling and any related pain.
  • Fluids: Drinking more water may help with swelling, but a dramatic increase in water intake may actually make it worse. A person should ask their doctor how much water to drink each day. Some people may need to take diuretics, or “water pills,” to help the body get rid of excess water.

People who notice unusual swelling in their feet should always call a doctor. A person should also speak with a doctor if they:

  • know they have heart failure and notice new or worsening swelling
  • have swelling on just one side of the body
  • have swelling along with other symptoms, such as difficulty breathing
  • develop painful or unpleasant side effects after they start taking medication
  • suddenly gain weight for no apparent reason

Numerous other conditions can cause swelling in the feet. They include:

  • Pregnancy: It is important to note that pregnancy can also affect heart health, so heart failure is still possible when a person is pregnant.
  • Blood clots: A blood clot in the veins of the leg may cause swelling in one foot.
  • Organ failure: Problems with other organs, such as the liver or kidneys, may cause swelling. Organ failure may also eventually affect the heart.
  • Long periods of standing: Long periods of physical activity or standing may cause swelling that goes down when a person rests. Sometimes, this swelling is worse in the heat.
  • Injuries: Injuries to the feet or legs can cause inflammation and swelling. In most cases, the swelling will be in just one foot.
  • Venous insufficiency: In this condition, the veins in the legs become “lazy,” potentially leading to a buildup of blood in the feet.
  • Lymphedema: Lymphedema occurs when damage to the lymph system leads to the accumulation of fluids.

Learn whether certain causes of swelling are serious here.

Swelling in the feet does not always mean that a person has a serious medical condition, but it can be an important early warning sign of heart disease or other health issues, particularly if it persists, recurs, or occurs alongside other symptoms.

Anyone with any concerns about swollen feet or other symptoms of heart failure should speak with a doctor as soon as possible.

Read this article in Spanish.