CHF: Medical Abbreviation for Congestive Heart Failure

Signs, risks, and diagnosis of CHF

CHF is a medical abbreviation for congestive heart failure, sometimes simply referred to as heart failure. Despite this name, the heart doesn't actually stop functioning altogether. Rather, its muscles fail to keep up with the body’s needs, meaning the heart is unable to properly circulate blood.

This typically chronic condition causes blood to pool in arteries and veins, leading to swelling (usually in the feet and ankles), fluid buildup in the lungs, and kidney problems, among many other symptoms. CHF most often arises in those who’ve had or are having other heart problems like coronary artery disease (CAD), hypertension (high blood pressure), and heart attack.

Using the CHF Medical Abbreviation

A sub-type of a broader category of heart failure that also includes right and left-sided heart failure, CHF is quite common, with almost 5 million people living with it in the U.S. As such, you’ll most likely hear CHF used when your primary care physician or a cardiologist suspects the condition, or when the other types of heart failure have been ruled out.

Since this condition is usually caused by a range of different heart conditions, the term has utility in highlighting the effect of weakened heart muscles and compromised circulation. In the clinical setting, the cardiology team will have a reasonable understanding of what’s happening when they hear “CHF.”

Why Your Healthcare Professional Might Discuss CHF

CHF most often arises as a result of other heart conditions, though it can also occur on its own. As such, it’ll be screened for when other conditions, such as coronary artery disease (CAD), type 2 diabetes, irregular heartbeat, or high blood pressure, are present.

It may also be a concern if you’ve had a heart attack, were born with heart valve defects, or have contracted some viruses, such as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and this may also prompt screening. Finally, cancer patients who've undergone radiation therapy may also experience damage to the heart leading to CHF.

Signs of CHF

The symptoms of CHF include:

  • Breathing problems and chronic cough
  • Rapid and/or irregular heartbeat
  • Lack of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness in arms and legs
  • Confusion and impaired thinking
  • Swelling in extremities
  • Rapid weight gain

Risks of CHF

The severity of CHF can vary a great deal; however, often because of its association with other health issues, the condition can be deadly. More than half of those diagnosed with CHF have been found to die within five years of diagnosis.

The condition requires management and will get worse if untreated, especially in cases where symptoms are becoming dangerous, such as when the lungs start filling with fluid. Notably, those who’ve been diagnosed are six to nine times more likely to experience sudden cardiac arrest, in which the heart stops.

CHF is particularly a point of concern for those with other health conditions or risk factors. These include:

  • Age over 65
  • History of heart attack
  • Being African-American
  • Being obese or overweight
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Congenital heart defects

Heart Failure Doctor Discussion Guide

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How CHF Is Diagnosed 

Several tests are used to diagnose CHF:

  • Physical evaluation: Your healthcare provider goes over your symptoms, medical history, and any medications and supplements you’re taking. They listen to your heart using a stethoscope, check blood pressure and other vital measures, and test your blood.
  • Chest X-ray: X-ray imaging of the chest lets practitioners see if the heart has become enlarged and if blood is pooling in the lungs.
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG): Heart rhythm, rate, and electrical activity are recorded using electrodes placed on the chest to assess the effects of a previous heart attack as well as detect an irregular heartbeat. 
  • Echocardiography: Colloquially called “echo,” this test relies on ultrasound to examine the motion and structure of the heart.
  • Cardiac stress test: Blood pressure, heart rate, and other important measures are monitored while walking on a treadmill and afterward.
  • MUGA scan: Also known as radionuclide ventriculography (RVG), this test relies on injecting a radioactive dye into the bloodstream to examine the heart using nuclear imaging.
  • Cardiac catheterization: Using a catheter (a tube inserted into the body), a contrast dye is injected into the arteries of the heart, and X-ray pictures are taken to assess if there are any blockages. The resulting images are called angiograms.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): This type of imaging relies on magnetic fields and radio waves to create accurate, interactive computer images of the heart.

What You Should Know About CHF

Primarily, the damaging effects of CHF have to do with “congestion,” or the improper pooling of blood due to the failure of healthy circulation. Over time, problems get worse as the body attempts to compensate for this issue, leading to:

  • Enlarged heart as cardiac muscles pump harder and grow
  • Elevated heart rate to make up for insufficient blood flow
  • Narrowed vessels to preserve dangerously low blood pressure
  • Diverted blood flow to crucial parts of the body and away from the limbs

These factors, alongside the impact of blood congestion in parts of the body, contribute to the range of CHF symptoms that are seen.

Stages of Heart Failure

Heart failure is classified into four stages:

Stage A represents those at risk for heart failure, but with no active disease or symptoms. Stage A treatment focuses on prevention through lifestyle changes and medication. 

Stage B is considered pre-heart failure. In stage B, there is structural disease but no other symptoms of heart failure. This stage is treated with more aggressive medications or surgery in addition to lifestyle modifications. 

Stage C describes a person who has structural disease and symptoms of heart failure, such as shortness of breath, fatigue, decreased ability to exercise, weak legs, and swollen feet, ankles, lower legs, and abdomen. Treatment in stage C focuses on relieving symptoms and preventing further damage. 

Stage D heart failure is considered an advanced disease state characterized by recurrent hospitalizations despite attempts to optimize treatment. Treatment for this state may require surgery, intravenous (IV) inotropic drugs, ventricular assist devices, and possibly even a heart transplant. 


Primarily, CHF is related to heart health. It arises due to:

  • Coronary artery disease (CAD): Plaque-build up in coronary arteries causes them to narrow or become blocked, severely impacting blood flow. Notably, CAD can lead to angina (chest pains), heart attack, and other issues.
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure): Elevated blood pressure over the long term can also cause plaque buildup and weaken the heart.
  • Type 2 diabetes: Chronic cases of this disease, in which the body is unable to effectively utilize sugar (glucose) for energy, can also impact cardiac activity and output.
  • Arrhythmia: Irregular and rapid heartbeat due to problems in electrical signaling in the heart may also lead to insufficient blood circulation.
  • Cardiomyopathy: This is an umbrella term for a disease of the heart muscle. In one form of cardiomyopathy, the heart muscles become enlarged and rigid.
  • Heart valve disease: Congenital conditions and some bacteria can cause narrowing and obstruction in heart valves and may lead to CHF, like aortic stenosis and valvular regurgitation, among others.
  • Rheumatic heart disease: In cases of the bacterial infection rheumatic fever, the heart becomes scarred and chronically inflamed.
  • Infection: Viral infections, such as with the common cold or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), can cause inflammation in the heart, weakening of the heart muscle, and an accumulation of fluid around the heart.
  • Radiation damage: CHF can also occur due to radiation damage of heart muscles due to cancer treatment.
  • Alcohol/drug abuse: Heavy alcohol and cocaine use can also lead to damage of cardiac muscles.


Given how severe CHF can be, it’s important to understand prevention strategies for the condition. These include:

  • Adopt a healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise and adopting a heart-healthy diet.
  • Manage excess weight, if you’re obese or overweight.
  • Treat diabetes by taking the proper medications and adjusting your lifestyle.
  • Monitor cholesterol levels and do what you can to keep these healthy.
  • Take on high blood pressure by using prescribed medications or making other changes.
  • Quit smoking or using nicotine products.
  • Medications prescribed by your healthcare provider can help preserve heart health.


There is no specific cure for CHF, so treatment relies on taking on the underlying conditions that have caused it. Therapy for this type of heart disease can include:

Heart-healthy lifestyle changes: Adjusting exercise levels, diet, and other aspects of health can combat the conditions underlying CHF to help manage it.

Drug therapy: Medications that lower blood pressure and ease cardiac strain can help. These include:

Surgery: Treating CAD, heart attack, or other heart conditions leading to CHF will help take it on. This may mean anything from coronary artery bypass surgery (CABG) to less invasive therapies, such as angioplasty (the placing stents in arteries to open them up).

Treating other diseases: Managing type 2 diabetes can also critically prevent the further development of CHF.

Pacemaker: Since CHF can cause the left and right sides of the heart to become out of sync, a pacemaker device may help correct this issue and reduce symptoms.

Defibrillator: In cases where heartbeat comes very irregular and rapid, healthcare providers may need to surgically implant a special electronic device called an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) to monitor rhythm and correct it as necessary.

CHF Complications Related to Other Body Functions

CHF doesn’t only affect the heart. In fact, some of the most prominent symptoms arise due to the effect of blood congestion in other organ systems. These include:

  • Nausea and lack of appetite: Feeling sick, vomiting, and lack of hunger associated with CHF are due to affected blood supply to the liver and digestive system.
  • Swelling: Swelling in the extremities arises as kidneys receiving insufficient blood emit hormones that retain salt and water.
  • Weight gain: The rapid weight gain associated with CHF is also related to hormonal imbalances and retention of salt and water caused by insufficient circulation of blood.
  • Confusion and impaired thinking: Impaired thinking, confusion, and other cognitive effects may arise from electrolyte imbalances and toxins in the bloodstream that result when the kidneys are not working optimally.

A Word From Verywell

There’s no doubt that CHF is a term that most wouldn’t want to hear coming from their healthcare provider. Your first question may be, "Is CHF life threatening?" As with any condition related to the heart, this disease has a cascade of effects, and, especially if left untreated, can be fatal.

That said, there are many treatment strategies available to take it on. While the road isn’t easy—most often, getting a handle on CHF means making significant changes or undergoing significant treatment—it’s important to remember that management is indeed possible.

As techniques, therapies, and technologies continue to evolve, the outlook for those with this disease will only get better.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is CHF in medical terms?

    CHF stands for congestive heart failure, which is sometimes just called heart failure. This is a condition where the heart muscle is weakened and unable to circulate blood properly. 

  • What is the life expectancy of someone with CHF?

    The prognosis for congestive heart failure depends on the cause and severity of the disease along with the presence of other underlying conditions. In general, though, 81.3% of those with CHF can expect to live one year; 51.5% five years; and 29.5% 10 years.

  • Why do I have CHF?

    Congestive heart failure can be caused by other heart conditions (such as a heart attack or valve disease), diabetes, infection, radiation, and alcohol or drug abuse.

  • How much water should you drink if you have congestive heart failure?

    Because you tend to have fluid build-up with CHF, your healthcare provider may advise you to reduce your fluid intake.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Mark Gurarie
Mark Gurarie is a freelance writer, editor, and adjunct lecturer of writing composition at George Washington University.