5 Must-Know Facts About Congenital Heart Disease

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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  • Congenital heart disease, also known as congenital heart defects or CHD, is the most common birth defect in the world. A CHD results when the heart doesn’t develop properly before birth, affecting how efficiently the heart gets blood to the body. CHDs range from simple to complex and may be diagnosed at birth or later in life, sometimes not until you are an adult. Most can be treated successfully, using a wide variety of approaches, depending on the nature of the defect.

  • 1
    There are many types of congenital heart defects, ranging from mild to life threatening.
    Newborn Checkup

    The most common of the milder defects is a “hole in the heart,“ which is often found in the wall (septum) between the chambers of the heart. The hole, or septal defect may be no bigger than a pinhead or much larger. Depending on size and location, a septal defect may or may not need treatment. Among the more complex congenital heart defects, the most common is tetralogy of Fallot, when four different defects are present. Infants with this diagnosis usually have blue-tinged skin because their blood doesn't carry enough oxygen. Doctors perform open heart surgery to repair the defect.

  • 2
    You are born with CHD, but the problem may not be detected until you’re older.
    Businesswoman clutching chest

    If your heart defect is mild and there are no signs or symptoms of a problem, doctors might not discover it until you are older. Later in life, you may experience abnormal heart rhythms, a bluish tint to the skin, shortness of breath, an inability to sustain exercise, or swelling of your legs or arms. Left untreated, CHD can lead to heart failure, stroke, an infection in the heart, or problems with the heart valves. Sometimes heart defects repaired in babies can return during adulthood. It’s also possible that heart defect repair may cause scar tissue to appear years after the operation.

  • 3
    Congenital birth defects don’t always need treatment right away if the heart is working well.
    Baby visits the doctor

    Relatively minor heart defects might require only periodic checkups, known as “watchful waiting,” to make sure the condition hasn’t worsened. In babies, more than half of septal defects eventually close on their own, usually in the first few years of life. If your baby has this condition, make sure you know how often your doctor wants to see your child for an evaluation. With regularly scheduled visits, your doctor can make sure the heart is working well and there are no complications.

  • 4
    Congenital heart defect treatment includes surgery, medication, and heart monitoring devices.

    Some of the milder congenital heart defects can be treated with medications that help the heart work more efficiently and regulate your heartbeat. Doctors can also implant a pacemaker or other device to make sure the heart is pumping sufficiently hard to get enough blood to the body. Another common procedure involves insertion of a thin, flexible tube, called a catheter, into an artery and on to the heart to repair defects. For more complex defects, open heart surgery or a heart transplant may be necessary.

  • 5
    A congenital heart defect does not mean you cannot lead an active life.
    Woman exercising with weights

    Doctors have made major advances in the treatment of congenital heart disease in the past twenty years. Even in more complex cases, many people reach adulthood and live active lives. Most women with CHD can safely have children, though certain defects can raise some serious health risks. Some adults with CHD may have shortness of breath or don’t tolerate exercise well. People with CHD also will need ongoing cardiac care and monitoring. Still, the outlook is bright for the great majority of people with congenital heart disease.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Aug 6
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