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Congenital Heart Disease

What is congenital heart disease?

Congenital heart disease is a heart problem that a child is born with. It means that the heart did not develop normally before birth.

Three kinds of problems can be caused by congenital heart disease or defects:

  • The heart does not pump blood well because it is not fully developed.
  • Blood flow in the heart is blocked by abnormal heart valves or arteries. This can put a strain on the heart muscle.
  • The path of blood flow through the heart or major blood vessels is not normal.

An abnormal path of blood flow usually happens when there is a hole in the walls of the heart. Sometimes there is an abnormal connection between 2 arteries outside the heart. In some cases, blood that should be flowing to the lungs for more oxygen flows instead to the rest of the body. In other cases, blood that should go to the rest of the body may go to the lungs. Sometimes the heart rhythm (heartbeat) is not normal.

Mild congenital heart defects may not be noticed until adulthood.

What is the cause?

Most of the time the cause of congenital heart disease is not known.

Some conditions that increase the risk of being born with a heart defect include:

  • Other family members have congenital heart disease.
  • The mother has diabetes.
  • The mother has an infection during pregnancy, such as rubella (German measles).

Some medicines or drugs taken by the mother during pregnancy or even a month or 2 before pregnancy may increase the risk that a baby will be born with a heart defect.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of heart defect in a baby or child may include:

  • Not feeding well
  • Being weak
  • Having a fast heartbeat
  • Having trouble gaining weight
  • Being short of breath
  • Sweating when they feed or cry
  • Turning blue
  • Breathing fast

As symptoms get worse, a baby may turn very cool, pale or mottled. The baby may stop urinating and have a very weak pulse. Babies can die if they are not treated.

If the defect is mild, there may be no symptoms. Most defects, however, cause a whispering sound, or murmur, as blood moves through the heart. Healthcare providers can hear the murmur with a stethoscope.

How is it diagnosed?

Your child’s healthcare provider will ask about your child’s medical history and do an exam.

Tests may include:

  • Oxygen monitor to see if the oxygen level in the blood is low
  • Echocardiogram, which uses sound waves (ultrasound) to see how well the heart muscle is pumping
  • Chest X-ray
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), which measures and records the heartbeat
  • Angiogram, which uses X-rays and a thin, flexible tube put into a vein to check the structure of the heart
  • MRI, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to show detailed pictures of the heart and blood vessels
  • CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the heart and blood vessels

How is it treated?

The defect may be small and not need treatment. Sometimes it will get better without treatment. If the congenital heart defect is serious, it may need repair. Depending on the type of defect, this may be done with heart catheterization or open heart surgery.

How can I take care of my child?

If your child has congenital heart disease and no symptoms, he or she should have regular checkups. Your child may need to have regular follow-up visits with a heart specialist.

Follow your child’s healthcare provider's instructions. Ask your provider:

  • How and when you will hear your child’s test results
  • How long it will take for your child to recover
  • What activities your child should avoid and when your child can return to normal activities
  • How to take care of your child at home
  • If your child should take antibiotics to prevent infection before having dental work or procedures that involve the rectum, bladder, or vagina.
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if your child has them

Make sure you know when your child should come back for a checkup.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2013-02-13
Last reviewed: 2012-08-03
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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