Congenital Heart Disease
Congenital heart disease is a type of defect or malformation in one or more structures of the heart or blood vessels that occurs before birth.
These defects occur while the fetus is developing in the uterus and affect 8-10 out of every 1,000 children.
Congenital heart defects may produce symptoms at birth, during childhood, and sometimes not until adulthood.
About 500,000 adults in the U.S. have congenital heart disease.
What Causes Congenital Heart Disease?
In the majority of people, the cause of congenital heart disease is unknown. However, there are some factors that are associated with an increased chance of getting congenital heart disease. These risk factors include:
- Genetic or chromosomal abnormalities in the child such as Down syndrome.
- Taking certain medications or alcohol or drug abuse during pregnancy.
- Maternal viral infection, such as rubella (German measles) in the first trimester of pregnancy.
The risk of having a child with congenital heart disease is higher if a parent or a sibling has a congenital heart defect — the risk increases from eight in 1,000 to 16 in 1,000.
What Types of Congenital Heart Problems Are There?
The most common congenital heart problems include:
- Heart valve defects. Narrowing or stenosis of the valves or complete closure that impedes or prevents forward blood flow. Other valve defects include leaky valves that don’t close properly and allow blood to leak backwards.
- Defects in the walls between the atria and ventricles of the heart (atrial and ventricular septal defects). These defects allow abnormal mixing of oxygenated and unoxygenated blood between the right and left sides of the heart.
- Heart muscle abnormalities that can lead to heart failure.
What Are the Symptoms of Congenital Heart Disease in Adults?
Congenital heart disease may be diagnosed before birth, right after birth, during childhood, or not until adulthood. It is possible to have a defect and no symptoms at all. In adults, if symptoms are present, they may include:
- Shortness of breath.
- Limited ability to exercise.
How Is Congenital Heart Disease Diagnosed?
Congenital heart disease is often first detected when your doctor hears an abnormal heart sound or heart murmur when listening to your heart.
Depending on the type of murmur your doctor hears, he or she may order further testing such as:
- Echocardiogram or transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE)
- Cardiac catheterization
- Chest X-ray
- Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)
How Is Congenital Heart Disease Treated?
Treatment is based on the severity of the congenital heart disease. Some mild heart defects do not require any treatment. Others can be treated with medications, procedures, or surgery. Most adults with congenital heart disease should be monitored by a heart specialist and take precautions to prevent endocarditis (a serious infection of the heart valves) throughout their life.
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