You may know that a sudden heart attack can deal major damage to your health, but you might not be aware of the dangers of a slower-developing risk: that of congestive heart failure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 6.2 million Americans are currently living with the condition, which develops when your heart can’t pump blood efficiently enough to meet your body’s needs.

Though heart failure does not mean that the heart has stopped, it can still be a very serious or even life-threatening disease. That’s why it’s so crucial to recognize the signs of congestive heart failure—especially those that could easily be mistaken for something else. Read on to find out which symptom could tip you off to a congestive heart failure diagnosis and what to do if it happens to you.

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A long-lasting cough that produces pink mucus may be a sign of heart failure.

Coughing is a natural reflex that protects the respiratory system by clearing foreign particles out of the lungs and airway. While it’s normal to cough when there’s an irritant present, coughing will typically subside when that irritant is gone. That’s exactly why persistent coughs are considered more troubling: they often have other underlying causes.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the underlying cause for a lingering cough that produces white or pink-tinged mucus can, in fact, be heart failure. This is known as a “cardiac cough” and it can also trigger shortness of breath or wheezing. Experts explain that this happens because, as the heart becomes less efficient, blood may back up into the pulmonary veins—the vessels that bring blood from the lungs to the heart—allowing fluid to leak into the lungs.

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This symptom is often misdiagnosed as a respiratory problem.

Most commonly, a cough that won’t quit is the result of asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). However, as the Cleveland Clinic points out, “even with these diseases, coughing is minimized when inflammation in the lungs is kept under control.”

Their experts say that if your cough persists after treatment—even if you’ve been diagnosed with a respiratory ailment—you should be evaluated for heart failure. “I have met patients who were first diagnosed as having a respiratory issue,” heart failure specialist Miriam Jacob, MD, explains via the Cleveland Clinic site. “Over time, when their symptoms did not improve with appropriate treatment, heart failure was entertained as a diagnosis.”

If you notice even one other sign of heart failure, contact your doctor immediately.

The signs of heart failure can be ambiguous because they are frequently associated with a number of other illnesses, as well. “By themselves, any one sign of heart failure may not be cause for alarm,” according to the American Heart Association. “But if you have more than one of these symptoms, even if you haven’t been diagnosed with any heart problems, report them to a healthcare professional and ask for an evaluation of your heart,” their experts advise.

Not sure what to look out for? Shortness of breath, wheezing, swelling or fluid retention, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, confusion, and increased heart rate are some of the other common symptoms of heart failure, the AHA reports.

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Never try to treat your cough at home if you suspect heart failure.

Attempting to treat your cardiac cough at home with an over-the-counter cough suppressant can be very dangerous for those with heart failure. “The active ingredients in some of these—namely pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) and triprolidine-pseudoephedrine (Actifed) can raise blood pressure and cause fluid retention—both side effects that can exacerbate heart failure,” Richard N. Fogoros, MD, a retired cardiologist, tells Verywell Health.

Instead, continue taking any heart medication that has been prescribed to you and reach out to your doctor for immediate evaluation.

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