February 14, 2017

congenitalWhen you hear about heart attacks and heart disease, the first things you may think about are risk factors such as diet, obesity, or unhealthy lifestyles. However, there are a significant number of children born yearly with a heart defect who are already at risk.

According to the CDC, 40,000 children are born each year with a congenital heart defect, which equates to 1 in every 100 births.

What is a Congenital Heart Defect?

A congenital heart defect (CHD) occurs when part of the heart or blood vessels does not fully develop or abnormally develops during pregnancy, affecting the flow of blood from the heart to the body and lungs. This may occur in one or more of the following ways:

  • The wall between the right and left side of the heart is not completely closed.
  • Heart valve(s) do not properly open or close.
  • Blood vessels (arteries and veins) are narrow or incorrectly positioned.

A child may be born with one or more defects as listed above. The defect(s) may be isolated or be a part of different genetic syndromes such as Down syndrome.

Of the children born each year with CHD, about 25% will need corrective surgery within the first year of life and if severe enough, as early as hours after birth. This is known as critical congenital heart defects (CCHD.)


Diagnosis may occur with an ultrasound during pregnancy, symptoms upon birth, or by symptoms later in life such as:

  • Bluish tint to lips or fingernails
  • Difficulty breathing or feeding
  • Poor weight gain

*Notify your pediatrician immediately if you notice any of the above-listed symptoms.

Your child may not have any symptoms, however, during a routine well-child checkup; the pediatrician may hear a heart murmur (change in the sound of the heart) or see an increase in blood pressure. Additional testing to determine diagnosis may include one or more of the following:

  • Echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart) – looks at the structure and blood flow of the heart
  • Chest x-ray – looks at the physical structure of the heart
  • EKG – checks the rhythm of the heart
  • Blood work
  • Imaging of the heart- CT scan or MRI
  • Cardiac catheterization – measures the pressures of the heart and further looks at the structure


When the diagnosis of CHD occurs in utero or at birth, a plan for treatment will be put in place before discharge to include follow-up with a pediatric cardiologist. Cases of CCHD will require the infant to remain in the hospital until stable for discharge.

The severity of the defect and the symptoms of the child determines the treatment. If left untreated, CHD can lead to heart failure or other complications later in life. Treatment options include:

  • Routine follow-up. Smaller defects may resolve on their own without intervention.
  • Medications to control symptoms
  • Open heart surgery

For additional information, refer to resources listed below. Always reach out to your pediatrician or physician with specific questions or concerns regarding your child.