What is congestive heart failure? Elizabeth Taylor's death reminds us of deadly condition

Elizabeth Taylor posing in an old film still.
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(CBS) American film icon Elizabeth Taylor has died at 79 of congestive heart failure. What is it and can it happen to you?

Congestive heart failure is a condition where your heart is no longer strong enough to pump blood throughout your body. It can be caused by many things, including persistent high blood pressure, clogging of the arteries that lead to the heart, and even diabetes. It's not the same as a heart attack, which is when your heart suddenly stops.

Congestive heart failure can cause tiredness and shortness of breath, buildup of fluid in the legs and feet, and most distinctively, a buildup of fluid and blood in the lungs. The lungs become congested, hence the name.

About five million Americans have congestive heart failure, according to the government, and 300,000 die from it each year.

If you experience the following symptoms, the National Institutes of Health recommends you get medical attention.

- Sudden weight gain (2 pounds in 1 day or 5 pounds in 5 days)
- Worsening shortness of breath
- Increased swelling of your feet, legs or abdomen
- Needing more pillows or sleeping in a recliner
- Waking from sleep to catch  your breath
- New or worsening dizziness
- A cough that does not go away
- New or increased irregularities in your heart rate
- Any problem with heart failure medications

If you experience these symptoms, call 911 or go to the emergency room immediately.

- Severe shortness of breath
- Coughing up pink, frothy spetum
- Chest discomfort, pain or pressure not relieved by rest an/or nitroglycerin pills

That's the scary news. The good news is that for many people, there are tons of things to do that can help prevent the condition - everything from regular exercise to a healthy diet that is watchful of fats and salt. There are also medications that can help such as diuretics, beta blockers and ACE inhibitors.

For more information, check out this congestive heart failure guide (PDF) from the National Institutes of Health.


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