Congenital heart defects are problems with the heart's structure that are present at birth. These defects can involve the interior walls of the heart, the valves inside the heart, or the arteries and veins that carry blood to the heart or out to the body. Congenital heart defects change the normal flow of blood through the heart.
Congenital heart defects are the most common type of birth defect. They affect 8 out of every 1,000 newborns. Each year, more than 35,000 babies in the United States are born with congenital heart defects.
There are many types of congenital heart defects. They range from simple defects with no symptoms to complex defects with severe, life-threatening symptoms.
Doctors don't know what causes most congenital heart defects. Heredity may play a role. Also, children who have genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome, often have congenital heart defects. Smoking during pregnancy also has been linked to several congenital heart defects.
Although many congenital heart defects have few or no symptoms, some do. Severe defects can cause signs and symptoms such as:
Cyanosis (a bluish tint to skin, lips, and fingernails)
Poor blood circulation
Congenital heart defects also may cause heart murmurs and delayed growth and development. Severe heart defects can lead to heart failure.
Severe heart defects generally are found during pregnancy or soon after birth. Less severe defects aren't diagnosed until children are older. Echocardiography is an important test for both diagnosing a heart problem and following the problem over time. Other tests also may be used to help diagnose congenital heart defects.
Although many children who have congenital heart defects don't need treatment, some do. Doctors repair heart defects with catheter procedures or surgery. The treatment your child receives depends on the type and severity of his or her heart defect. Other factors include your child's age, size, and general health.
With new advances in testing and treatment, most children who have congenital heart defects survive to adulthood and can lead healthy, productive lives. Some need special care throughout their lives to maintain a good quality of life.