Signs Your Cough Is Actually A Symptom Of Heart Failure

A cough goes hand in hand with allergies, a seasonal cold, or an unpleasant case of acid reflux. What you might not associate with a cough, however, is heart failure. Affecting approximately 6.2 million American adults, heart failure was cited on more than 13% of death certificates in 2018, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Different from a heart attack, heart failure occurs when the heart is unable to supply enough blood to our other essential organs. People with hypertension, obesity, or coronary artery disease (CAD) — in which plaque has collected in the artery walls and restricts blood flow — may be more susceptible to heart failure. This is also true for those who smoke, don't get sufficient amounts of exercise, or consume alcohol in excess. Common warning signs of heart failure include weakness, shortness of breath, swelling in the stomach or lower extremities, and more. Additionally, an abnormal cough can also be a symptom of heart failure. Here's what we mean by an abnormal cough versus your average, everyday cough.

A persistent wet cough may be a symptom of heart failure

The occasional inhalation of dust or a tickle in the throat may produce a brief coughing fit, but a persistent cough that sticks around can instead be indicative of heart failure, reports the American Heart Association (AHA). Of course, an ongoing cough can alternatively be related to asthma, the flu, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or any other number of alternate health issues. To help differentiate, know that a heart failure-related cough is often a wet cough due to the backup of fluid that takes place in the lungs. Also known as congestive heart failure, the mucus produced from these coughs may be white or pink in color.

Getting even more specific in terms of time of day and body positioning, updated 2023 research published in StatPearls outlines how a nighttime cough (nocturnal cough) that worsens when a person lays flat on their back can also be a symptom of heart failure. However, nocturnal cough is considered a more uncommon symptom of chronic heart failure (via Physiological Research). 

Managing symptoms of heart failure

Once the damage is done, there is no way to reverse heart failure. However, there are ways in which the condition can be managed. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute states that, depending on the severity and specific kind of heart failure a patient is experiencing, medication may be an option. This includes sodium-reducing drugs like diuretics, blood pressure medications, or drugs that relax the blood vessels and support heart functioning. Note that cough is an associated side effect with this last category of medications. Alternatively, some types of heart failure may warrant surgery or require the patient to use a pacemaker, pump, or implantable defibrillator.

Engaging in healthy lifestyle habits is also recommended for those living with heart failure. This includes eating less salt, minimizing stress, treating any known sleep disorders, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising on a regular basis, as well as managing one's blood pressure levels.