DEAR DR. DONOHUE: My mother, 88, has taken care of herself up till now. She lives far from me. My sister called to tell me that my mother is hospitalized with congestive heart failure, and she implied that Mother is on death’s door. Do people recover from congestive heart failure? – D.R.

ANSWER: Congestive heart failure – CHF – means the heart is pumping so weakly that it cannot deliver enough blood to tissues and organs to provide them with the oxygen they need. Because the heart is a feeble pump, blood backs up and “congests” the lungs and sometimes other body organs and tissues. Ankle swelling is a sign of such congestion.

The prominent heart failure symptom is breathlessness on slight exertion. The breathlessness comes from a lack of oxygen. As failure progresses, people become short of breath when they lie down. And as it progresses even further, people wake from sleep gasping for air.

Congestive heart failure is a serious condition, but it is not usually an indication that death is around the corner. There are many treatments, and there are many new medicines for it.

Coreg and Lopressor are two relatively new CHF medicines. They belong to the class of medicines known as beta blockers. Another important addition to treatment is ACE-inhibitor drugs – examples include Captopril, Vasotec, Prinivil and Altace. In a different class of drug is Inspra. It’s a brand-new medicine that has been added to the arsenal of treatments.

You are probably familiar with the digitalis drugs that have been around for eons. They make the heart beat more strongly. Diuretics – water pills – have also been around for many years, and they are still used to rid the body of fluid accumulation that is consequent to CHF.

A very new technique is cardiac resynchronization. It is the use of pacemakers that get the pumping heart chambers – the ventricles – beating in tandem, as they should. Your mother and her doctors have many options to get her back on her feet.

Congestive heart failure is a common condition, and questions about it are equally common. Most of them are answered in the booklet on that topic. To order a copy, write to: Dr. Donohue – No. 103, Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Enclose a check or money order (no cash) for $4.50 U.S./$6.50 Can. with the recipient’s printed name and address. Please allow four weeks for delivery.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: Since I had my gallbladder removed, I have had diarrhea. I traded one problem for another. My doctor tells me to live with it. Is there anything you know of that I could do? – B.K.

ANSWER: The gallbladder is a storage tank for bile made by the liver. When fats enter the intestine, the gallbladder sends a jet of bile into the intestine to aid in their digestion. Without a gallbladder, bile drips into the intestine on a constant basis. For some, the constant drip of bile irritates the digestive tract and leads to diarrhea.

You might find that staying away from caffeine, alcohol, spicy foods, dairy products, fried foods and fatty foods lessens the trips to the bathroom.

Imodium, a common anti-diarrhea medicine, can often control bile-induced diarrhea.

Questran and WelChol, two medicines whose primary purpose is lowering cholesterol, can tie up bile and bring relief to many people with post-gallbladder diarrhea. So can the antacid Amphojel.

Don’t surrender without a fight.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: A glass of wine helps me go to sleep. I have been told that alcohol is not a good sleep aid. Why not? Should I stop taking the wine? – K.J.

ANSWER: Alcohol upsets normal sleep cycles and produces fitful and unrefreshing sleep. That’s the reason for not recommending it as a sleep inducer for the general public.

However, if you find it works and if you are not tired-out during the day, then you are an exception to the rule. There is probably no reason why you should not continue with your glass of wine.

Dr. Donohue regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but he will incorporate them in his column whenever possible. Readers may write him or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475.

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