How Heart Disease Affects The Respiratory System


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Heart disease affects the respiratory system by causing irregularities in the way fluid is carried away from the lungs. Find out more…


Heart disease and the respiratory system

The heart and the lungs are intimately connected. Far from being independent organs, they toil together to ensure that all the cells in your body receive the oxygen they need to survive. For most of us breathing is spontaneous and effortless, but sometimes it can become a challenge. Lung and respiratory system complications like infections, allergies, asthma and bronchitis can all lead to difficulties breathing, but sometimes breathlessness could be an indication that there’s a problem with your heart.

How heart disease affects the respiratory system

The heart pumps blood around the body but first it pumps it to the lungs to ensure that the red blood cells are topped up with essential oxygen. It’s an incredible process:
  1. You breathe in air from the world around you. In the lungs, the oxygen passes into the bloodstream and attaches to a protein called haemoglobin in the red blood cells.
  2. This oxygenated blood returns to the heart where it is then pumped through the blood vessels around the organs and tissues of the body.
  3. The cells use the oxygen and release carbon dioxide, which is transported in the blood back to the heart.
  4. The heart pumps this deoxygenated blood to the lungs.
  5. The carbon dioxide passes through the thin walls to be released when you breathe out, ready for the whole process to start again.

How the heart can affect breathing

This is a delicate and finely balanced system, so when something goes wrong it can have enormous effects. If the heart is diseased or damaged and can’t pump efficiently it can significantly affect the lungs, meaning that breathing can be impaired.

If you would like to learn more about heart disease; the history, causes, and the various treatments, see Heart Disease: A Deeper Dive


 Heart failure

Coronary artery disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, irregular rhythms and valve abnormalities can all take their toll on your heart, affecting its ability to pump properly. The organ can become more and more weak, until it is unable to effectively send blood around the body. The blood tends to back-up in the body and fluid passes into the tissues, this leads to swelling. This congestion is the reason heart failure is often called congestive cardiac failure. In the early stages, the breathlessness may only be noticeable when you’re exercising. Later, when the heart isn’t working well you may feel tired, weak and short of breath, even at rest.

Pulmonary oedema

Pulmonary oedema simply means fluid on the lungs. When liquid collects in the air spaces the ability of the lungs to oxygenate blood is affected. It can be a scary and unpleasant condition leaving you gasping for breath. Pulmonary oedema can be caused by lung disease, but when heart failure is more serious, the pressure of blood in the lungs builds-up, pushing fluid into the air sacs. This is how heart failure can lead to respiratory failure. People with pulmonary oedema will feel breathless, weak and unwell. You may cough up pink, frothy stuff and notice that the shortness of breath is often worse at night when you’re lying down. The effects of gravity mean that excess fluid from puffy ankles or legs comes back into the system making it more difficult for the heart to cope. Lying flat, the fluid in the lungs can make you feel as if you’re drowning. Sleeping propped up with pillows can help, but if you’re suffering with any of these symptoms it’s important to get emergency medical support.

Heart attack

A heart attack happens when one of the main arteries carrying blood to the heart, become blocked. This means the muscle will be starved of the oxygen it needs to survive. This causes pain but can also lead to feeling short of breath. Without rapid treatment, part of the heart muscle can die, making the heart less effective at pumping blood and increasing the risk of breathlessness and heart failure.

Heart rate irregularities

Your heart’s regular pattern of beats is controlled by the body’s electrical circuit. Short-circuits, heart attacks, health problems, alcohol and caffeine can all affect this process leading to a rapid or irregular beat. When the heart beats too fast, usually more than 100 beats per minute, it’s called tachycardia. If the heart rate is too fast, it can be difficult for the muscle to pump the blood effectively, leading to breathlessness and sometimes fainting and collapse.

It’s essential to get immediate medical attention if you have trouble breathing, especially if you’ve got palpitations, chest pain or breathlessness that’s worse lying down.


If a loved one is suffering with their breathing and especially if they are grey, clammy and distressed, call 999 and gently reassure and support them until they get the treatment they need. If you or someone you know is facing a diagnosis of heart disease, HomeTouch can help. Our carers are on hand to provide a friendly face and a helping hand right through to more advanced care. They’re available for a few hours a day to full time live in care. Whatever the requirements, we can help you to find the care and companionship you or your loved one needs to help them to live safely and happily in their own home. If you’re unsure about the prospect of care, that’s ok. You can download our impartial guide to elderly care (which is applicable no matter the age of your loved one) and get to know the many options available. There’s no harm in knowing more, and a carer might be able to provide you and your loved one with the support you need.

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