Congenital heart disease is an umbrella term for any condition that affects the heart from birth. Such illnesses or defects range from simple to complex, and can either be structural, affecting the anatomy of the heart; or functional, affecting the primarily responsibilities of the heart, specifically how blood is pumped to the rest of the body.
Common forms of congenital heart disease include:
- Heart valve defects, which prevent the heart from pumping blood properly
- Heart wall defects, which can cause the heart to pump harder, leading to high blood pressure
- Blood vessel defects, which can reduce or block blood flow from the heart to the body
Some congenital heart diseases are minor and pose little to no threat to one’s general health and quality of life. Others, however, are more serious and can have life-threatening consequences if not addressed promptly. Thankfully, most can be treated via medicines and surgery.
What Are the Symptoms of Congenital Heart Disease?
The signs of congenital heart disease can be detected during pregnancy or soon after birth. Symptoms vary according to the type of illness and severity. Some forms of congenital heart disease show symptoms at birth, while others have symptoms that develop during childhood, adolescence or even early adulthood.
Generally, symptoms include:
- Blue tinge to the skin, lips and fingernails
- Rapid or troubled breathing
- Fast heartbeat or heart murmur
- Poor feeding
- Sleepiness and fatigue
- Swelling in the hands, feet and ankles
What Causes Congenital Heart Disease?
Congenital heart disease occurs when there is a problem with the normal development of the heart. The exact reason why this happens is unknown, but there are factors that are said to contribute to an increased risk of congenital heart problems.
- Genetics – Babies or siblings of an individual with a congenital heart disease have a higher risk of developing the same illness.
- Genetic conditions – Children diagnosed with genetic illnesses such as Down syndrome, Turner syndrome and Noonan syndrome are more likely to be born with a congenital heart disease.
- Diabetes – High levels of insulin can disrupt the normal development of the baby, increasing the risk of problems with the development of the heart.
- Alcohol – Excessive drinking during pregnancy can lead to fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which increases risk of developing heart wall defects.
Infections like rubella and the flu, taking certain medicines, and exposure to organic solvents also increase a pregnant woman’s chances of giving birth to a baby with congenital heart problems.
How is Congenital Heart Disease Treated?
Depending on the type and severity of the congenital heart disease, treatment may range from medicines to transplants.
- Implantable medical devices – Pacemakers and implantable cardioverter defibrillators can be implanted to regulate heartbeats.
- Cardiac catheterization – Apart from diagnosing congenital heart diseases, cardiac catheterization may also be used to treat birth defects.
- Open heart surgery – For major repairs that require better visualization, including for repairing heart valves and walls, widening blood vessels and closing holes, open surgery is recommended.
- Heart transplant – In cases where a birth defect is severe or cannot be addressed via open surgery, the heart may be replaced by a new heart from a healthy donor.