Understanding the difference between heart failure and asthma

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As a heart failure cardiologist, I frequently see patients with heart failure who were initially misdiagnosed with asthma. The syndrome of heart failure occurs when the heart muscle becomes weak or stiff. It triggers fluid retention that can affect the lungs and cause shortness of breath.  Asthma occurs when the airways of the lungs become inflamed and narrowed.

Heart failure and asthma share some common symptoms such as

  • shortness of breath
  • cough
  • wheezing

However, there are some symptoms that are specific to heart failure. These include

  • ankle swelling
  • abdominal bloating
  • difficulty lying flat
  • cough that is worse when lying down
  • weight gain due to fluid retention

In addition to a patient’s medical history, there are several diagnostic tests that can help to differentiate heart failure from asthma. A chest x-ray, echocardiogram and a blood test called a BNP can help make the diagnosis. Asthma and heart failure are treated very differently, so it is important to get the diagnosis correct. Asthma is commonly treated with inhalers, steroids and avoiding environmental triggers. Heart failure is treated with diuretics, heart strengthening medication, a low sodium diet and exercise.

If you or your loved one has symptoms of heart failure, please call Dr. Kariann Abbate's office to schedule a consultation at 201-251-3243.

Kariann F. Abbate, MD

About the Author

Kariann F. Abbate, MD