Congenital heart defects are abnormalities with the heart’s structure that are present from birth. Defects can affect the heart muscle’s walls, valves, arteries or veins.
More than 35,000 babies in the United States are born with congenital heart defects each year. Though many of these problems are simple and require little or no treatment, more complex problems will often require special medical care soon after birth.
What causes congenital heart defects?
Doctors often don’t know why heart defects occur, though heredity may play a role. Children with genetic disorders such as Down syndrome are far more likely to be born with congenital heart disease.
What are the symptoms of congenital heart defects?
Not all congenital heart diseases cause symptoms. Depending on the severity and type of defects, parents may notice the following symptoms in young children:
- Rapid breathing
- A bluish tint to the skin and lips
- Poor circulation
- Inability to gain weight properly
Heart defects often cause heart murmurs (extra sounds heard during a heartbeat); though not all heart murmurs signal a congenital disease.
How are congenital heart defects diagnosed?
Severe heart defects can often be detected during pregnancy or soon after birth. Less serious defects are typically diagnosed when the child is older—often using the results from a physical exam or tests done for another reasons.
Tests that help doctors diagnose a congenital heart defect include:
- Cardiac catheterization
- Chest X-ray
- Electrocardiogram (EKG)
- Pulse oximetry
How are congenital heart defects treated?
Sometimes congenital heart disease requires no treatment at all. It may go away on its own or never cause any problems. Other times, treatment is necessary depending on the kind and severity of the defects.
Some congenital defects must be repaired using catheter procedures or surgery, including:
- Atrial septal defect (ASD) repair
- Pulmonary valve stenosis repair
- Open heart surgery
- Heart transplant (very rare)