Congenital heart disease

Congenital heart disease means a heart condition or defect that develops in the womb, before a baby is born. This can affect how the heart works, after the baby is born. Congenital heart disease is one of the most common types of birth defect.

Symptoms of congenital heart disease 

Some congenital heart problems are now picked up when the mother has an ultrasound scan during pregnancy.

Sometimes they are not found until after the baby has been born. Some conditions may not be discovered until the child is older or even an adult.

In babies and toddlers, congenital heart disease can have a range of symptoms because every child and condition is different.

Symptoms include:

These problems are sometimes noticeable soon after birth, although mild defects may not cause any problems until later in life.

Why it happens 

In most cases, no obvious cause of congenital heart disease is identified. However, some things are known to increase the risk of the condition, including:

  • Down's syndrome – a genetic disorder that affects a baby's normal physical development and causes learning difficulties
  • if a mother is exposed to certain infections, such as rubella, during pregnancy and is not immune to them
  • if a mother is unable to control her diabetes well during pregnancy (this applies to type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes – when she requires more clinical support during pregnancy)
  • other chromosome defects, where genes may be altered from normal and can be inherited 

Many cases of congenital heart disease are diagnosed before a baby is born during an ultrasound scan in pregnancy. However, it's not always possible to detect congenital heart defects in this way.

Types of congenital heart disease 

There are many types of congenital heart disease. They sometimes occur together.

Some of the more common defects include:

  • holes in the walls between sections of the heart
  • narrowing of blood vessels
  • valves that are faulty and problems with how the blood vessels are joined up

 Treating congenital heart disease 

Treatment for congenital heart disease depends on the specific problems you or your baby has with their heart.

Mild heart defects don't usually need to be treated. However, it's likely that you or your baby will have regular check-ups to monitor your health.

More severe heart defects usually require surgery. They will also usually require long-term monitoring of the heart throughout adult life.

In some cases, medications may be used to relieve symptoms or stabilise the condition before and/or after surgery. 

These may include diuretics to remove fluid from the body and make breathing easier. These may also include medicine to slow down the heartbeat and increase the strength at which the heart pumps.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was reviewed December 2018

This page is due for review October 2021

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