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How Does Congestive Heart Failure Cause Death?

written by: Harry Sylvester • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 10/19/2010

When your heart cannot pump oxygen-rich blood to meet the body’s needs, this condition is referred to as congestive heart failure. It is a life-threatening condition that can lead to death if untreated. Learn about possible causes of death in congestive heart failure along with their explanations.

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    What is Congestive Heart Failure?

    Congestive heart failure (CHF), or heart failure, is a condition when the heart cannot sufficiently pump oxygen-rich blood to supply the body’s needs. It does not necessarily mean that the heart has quit or will quit functioning. The heart continues working, but not as effectively as it must. The condition grows slowly and symptoms may not be present for years. CHF might affect both sides of the heart, or it may affect the right side only.

    When you have right-sided heart failure your heart is incapable of pumping enough blood to the lungs. The amount of blood is reduced to the heart causing fluid to accumulate, usually in the veins in the neck, abdomen, liver, legs, feet, and ankles. Left-sided heart failure occurs when the heart is unable to pump enough blood throughout the body. This can result in fatigue and difficulty breathing.

    This life-threatening condition may lead to sudden death if left untreated. The following are possible causes of death in congestive heart failure:

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    Pulmonary Edema

    Pulmonary edema occurs when fluid accumulates in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe normally. Congestive heart failure commonly leads to this condition because the heart muscle is too weak to pump adequate amounts of blood to and from the lungs, as well as the rest of the body. Because of this, blood pressure in the lungs increase, causing the buildup of fluid in the lungs. Symptoms include difficulty breathing, chest pain, a wet cough, and low oxygen levels in the blood. Pulmonary edema can lead to serious complications like respiratory failure. Acute pulmonary edema, when it occurs suddenly, is especially an emergency situation that can be fatal if not treated immediately.

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    Arrhythmia & Cardiac Arrest

    Another serious complication of CHF that can cause death is arrhythmias, abnormal heart rhythms. The arrhythmia can be an abnormality of rate or regularity. The heart may beat too slow (bradycardia), too fast (tachycardia), or irregularly which may involve extra or missing beats. Some arrhythmias can be mild while others can be life-threatening. Symptoms include palpitations and chest pain. Serious types of arrhythmias can lead to cardiac arrest. The heart will either stop beating or it will not beat efficiently enough to maintain life. If this condition is not treated immediately, it can be fatal within minutes.

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    Other Complications

    Other complications that may lead to death include:

    • Kidney damage or failure due to decreased blood flow to the kidneys.
    • Liver damage due to scarring caused by pressure from a buildup of fluid.
    • Heart valve damage due to fluid buildup.
    • Heart attack or stroke due to an increase risk of developing blood clots.
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    References Heart Failure: Complications -

    Medline Plus: Heart Failure -

    The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute: What is an Arrhythmia? -

    The University of Maryland Medical Center: Heart Failure: Complication - Cardiac Arrest: Introduction -

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