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Heart Failure: Avoiding Triggers for Sudden Heart Failure

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Sudden heart failure can be prevented by avoiding the triggers that cause it. Not all people are sensitive to or react to the same triggers. What may cause sudden heart failure in one person may not cause another person any difficulty. To avoid sudden heart failure:

  • Pay attention to your symptoms. Changes in your weight, difficulty breathing, decreased appetite, and swelling (usually first noticed in the feet and legs) may be signs that your heart failure is getting worse.
  • Keep your diet, exercise, and medicine routine as close to the same schedule as possible.
  • Avoid things that you know can trigger heart failure, such as eating too much salt.

Sudden heart failure causes rapid fluid buildup in the lungs (congestion, pulmonary edema). Symptoms develop suddenly and include:

  • Severe shortness of breath.
  • An irregular or rapid heartbeat.
  • Coughing up foamy, pink mucus.

Sudden heart failure is an emergency medical situation and requires immediate care.

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Sudden heart failure requires emergency medical treatment.


Triggers upset the delicate balance in your body, making it even harder for your heart to pump effectively. When your heart suddenly cannot pump the blood that your body needs, symptoms of sudden heart failure develop.

Triggers lead to sudden heart failure in different ways.

Why does sodium (salt) trigger sudden heart failure?

After eating salty foods, you probably notice that you are thirsty and want to drink extra liquids. Sodium is a major component of salt and will cause your body to hold on to (retain) fluid even if you don't drink more liquids. This extra fluid causes your heart to work harder than normal to circulate the extra blood volume throughout your body.

Why does overexercising trigger sudden heart failure?

Moderate, regular exercise is very good for you and your heart. It improves your circulation and helps you control your weight. But if you overexercise to the point that you become out of breath, have chest pain, or become dizzy, you may be doing more harm than good. Overexercise increases your heart's workload and can reduce its ability to pump effectively.

Why does taking medicines incorrectly trigger sudden heart failure?

Your medicines help keep a delicate balance between the amount of fluid in your body and the ability of your heart to effectively pump blood. If you delay or miss doses of your medicines, it can affect this balance. Also, let your doctor know about any nonprescription medicines or natural supplements you take, because they might contain sodium or make your prescription drugs work less effectively.

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Triggers can lead to an emergency situation because your heart cannot effectively pump blood to your body.


Watch for signs of sudden heart failure.

  • Track your symptoms. As you live with your heart condition, become familiar with changes in how you feel, and let your doctor know if your heart condition is getting worse. Keeping a record of your symptomsClick here to view a form.(What is a PDF document?) can help.
  • Weigh yourself every day before breakfast. A sudden weight gain, such as 3 lb (1.4 kg) or more in 2 to 3 days, could signal the beginning of sudden heart failure.
  • Know the signs of sudden heart failure. Post a list of the symptoms where you can refer to it as needed, and keep a copy in your wallet. Make sure your friends and family know the symptoms. If you have symptoms of sudden heart failure, seek emergency help immediately.

Avoid your triggers

Talk with your doctor about the following possible triggers. If these are triggers for you, use the suggestions to help you avoid them.

  • Is eating too much sodium a trigger for you? Too much sodium is a common trigger for sudden heart failure. Be aware of how much sodium you are consuming. Your doctor might recommend that you not eat or drink more than 2 g (2000 mg) of sodium in your diet each day. Know how to find out how much sodium is in your foods and liquids. Ready-to-eat and canned foods tend to have more sodium. Choose fresh fruits and vegetables whenever possible. Talk with your doctor before taking any medicines that you can buy without a prescription. Many contain sodium.
  • Is overexercising a trigger for you? When you exercise, watch for signs that your heart is being stressed. If you become out of breath, have chest pain, or become dizzy, stop exercising. Talk with your doctor about whether you need to slow down, decrease your time, or avoid those activities.
  • Is not taking medicines properly a trigger for you? It is important to take all your medicines and to take them at the times you and your doctor decided upon.
Click here to view an Actionset.Heart Failure: Taking Medicines Properly.

Test Your Knowledge

Eating too much sodium can trigger sudden heart failure.


Now that you have read this information, you are ready to start avoiding triggers for sudden heart failure.

Talk with your doctor

If you have questions about this information, take it with you when you visit your doctor. You may want to use a highlighter to mark areas or make notes in the margins of pages where you have questions.

Take your symptoms record with you when you visit your doctor. Be sure to let your doctor know if you are noticing changes in your symptoms.

Talk with your doctor about what might be triggers for you. Discuss ways you can avoid those triggers.

If you would like more information about sudden heart failure, the following resource is available:


American Heart Association (AHA)
7272 Greenville Avenue
Dallas, TX 75231
Phone: 1-800-AHA-USA1 (1-800-242-8721)
Web Address:

Visit the American Heart Association (AHA) website for information on physical activity, diet, and various heart-related conditions. You can search for information on heart disease and stroke, share information with friends and family, and use tools to help you make heart-healthy goals and plans. Contact the AHA to find your nearest local or state AHA group. The AHA provides brochures and information about support groups and community programs, including Mended Hearts, a nationwide organization whose members visit people with heart problems and provide information and support.

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
P.O. Box 30105
Bethesda, MD 20824-0105
Phone: (301) 592-8573
Fax: (240) 629-3246
TDD: (240) 629-3255
Email: [email protected]
Web Address:

The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) information center offers information and publications about preventing and treating:

National Institutes of Health Senior Health
9000 Rockville Pike
Bethesda, MD 20892
Phone: 1-800-222-2225 Aging Information Center
TDD: 1-800-222-4225
Email: [email protected]
Web Address:

This website for older adults offers aging-related health information. The website's senior-friendly features include large print, simple navigation, and short, easy-to-read segments of information. A visitor to this website can click special buttons to hear the text aloud, make the text larger, or turn on higher contrast for easier viewing.

The site was developed by the National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine, both part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIHSeniorHealth features up-to-date health information from NIH. Also, the American Geriatrics Society provides independent review of some of the material found on this website.

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ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerRakesh K. Pai, MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology
Specialist Medical ReviewerStephen Fort, MD, MRCP, FRCPC - Interventional Cardiology
Last RevisedApril 26, 2012

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