Congenital heart disease can last into adulthood, but it is always present at birth. Caused by an early developmental problem with the heart’s structure and function, it typically interferes with proper blood flow through the heart and may affect breathing.
With today’s more advanced treatments and proper follow-up care, many infants who once would have died of congenital heart disease are able to survive well into adulthood.
Congenital heart disease is caused by a congenital heart defect. Often, the two terms are used interchangeably. In fact, these are the most common types of all birth defects. Although doctors sometimes do not know the cause of the heart defect, suspected causes include:
– Genetics: The defect may run in families.
– Medications: Some drugs taken during pregnancy can increase the risk, such as antiseizure medications.
– Alcohol or drug abuse during pregnancy.
– Infections: If the mother had a viral infection in the first trimester, it may increase the risk of giving birth to a child with a heart defect.
– Diabetes: may affect childhood development. Gestational diabetes so far has not been linked to congenital heart disease.
Though there are many different types of congenital heart defects, they can be condensed into three main categories:
1. Heart valve defects. The valves inside the heart that direct blood flow may close up or leak, leaving the heart unable to pump blood correctly.
2. Heart wall defects. The natural walls that exist between the left and right side and the upper and lower chambers of the heart may not develop correctly, allowing blood to back up into the heart or pool where it does not belong. The defect puts pressure on the heart to work harder and may result in high blood pressure.
3. Blood vessel defects. The arteries and veins that carry blood to the heart and back out to the body may not function correctly, blocking or slowing blood flow.
Many doctors classify congenital heart defects into two types: those that result in low oxygen levels and those that do not.
Babies who suffer from breathlessness or whose skin turns a bluish tint are not getting enough blood because the heart is not pumping as it should. This is called “cyanotic heart disease”. Babies who have enough oxygen but later suffer from high blood pressure or other signs of a heart working too hard have acyanotic heart disease.
What are the symptoms and risk factors of congenital heart disease?
A congenital heart defect can generally be detected by ultrasound during pregnancy. When a doctor hears a heart murmur, for instance, she may further investigate with tests such as echocardiograms, chest X-rays or an MRI. If a diagnosis is made, the doctor will have the appropriate specialists on hand during delivery. Early symptoms of a congenital heart defect include: bluish lips, skin, fingers and toes; breathlessness or trouble breathing; feeding difficulties (baby seems uninterested in nursing); small birth weight; low oxygen levels or fainting; chest pain; and delayed growth.
Sometimes—particularly in acyanotic heart disease where the baby is getting enough oxygen—symptoms will not show up until many years later. In this case, symptoms may include: abnormal heart rhythms; dizziness; trouble breathing; fainting; swelling of the organs or body tissues; low oxygen levels; and becoming easily fatigued.
How does a congenital heart disease treated?
Treatment for a congenital heart defect depends on the type and severity of the defect. Some babies have mild heart defects that heal on their own with time. Some may need to be treated with medication. Others may require one or more heart operations. These may include catheter procedures, open-heart surgery or—in the most severe cases—a heart transplant.
How can I protect my child from congenital heart disease?
Pregnant women can take certain precautions to lower their risk of giving birth to a baby with a congenital heart defect:
– If you are planning on become pregnant, talk to your doctor about any medications you are taking.
– Avoid alcohol and drugs during pregnancy.
– If you have diabetes, make sure your blood sugar levels are under control before becoming pregnant and work with your doctor to manage the disease while pregnant.
– If you were not vaccinated against rubella (German measles), avoid exposure to the disease and talk to your doctor about prevention options. (kes)