An episode of acute heart failure syndromes (AHFS) can be defined as a rapid or gradual onset of signs and symptoms of heart failure (HF) in hospital admission and can arise from a variety of pathophysiologic mechanisms. This article reviews our current understanding of the pathophysiology of AHFS in order to identify potential therapeutic targets. Most patients with AHFS present with either normal systolic blood pressure or elevated blood pressure. Patients who present with elevated systolic blood pressure usually have pulmonary congestion and a relatively preserved left ventricular ejection fraction (LVEF), and have symptoms that typically develop abruptly, these patients often are elderly women. Patients with normal systolic blood pressure presenting with systemic congestion and reduced LVEF are usually younger, with a history of chronic HF, and have symptoms that develop gradually over days or weeks. Accordingly, most episodes of AHFS can be classified as either "vascular" failure or "cardiac" failure. In addition to the abnormal hemodynamics (increase in pulmonary capillary wedge pressure and/or decrease in cardiac output) that characterize patients with AHFS, myocardial injury--which may be related to a decrease in coronary perfusion and/or further activation of neurohormones and renal dysfunction (ie, the cardiorenal syndrome)--probably contributes to short-term and post-discharge cardiac events. Patients with AHFS also have significant cardiac and non-cardiac underlying conditions that contribute to the pathogenesis of AHFS, including coronary artery disease (ischemia, hibernating myocardium, and endothelial dysfunction), hypertension, atrial fibrillation, and type 2 diabetes mellitus. The goals of therapy for AHFS should be not only to improve symptoms and hemodynamics, but also to preserve or improve renal function and prevent myocardial damage.