Heart defects are among the most common birth defects. Each year, about 25,000 babies are born with heart defects.
Congenital heart defects can affect any of the different parts or functions of the heart, which is responsible for pumping blood through the body. Defects can include holes in the wall of the heart, a heart that beats too quickly or too slowly, valve defects that prevent blood from flowing smoothly, or other malformations that prevent the heart and circulatory system from functioning efficiently.
These defects can be very mild, exhibiting no symptoms for many years, or they can be severe, requiring immediate attention at birth. In most cases, doctors cannot pinpoint what causes a baby’s heart to develop abnormally. Scientists believe both environmental and genetic factors contribute to congenital heart defects.
Women who contract rubella or some other viral infections may have a greater risk of having a baby with a heart defect.
Certain chronic illnesses in the mother, such as diabetes, can increase the risk of congenital heart defects in the baby.
Doctors have identified certain drugs, such as some taken for acne and depression, as risk factors.
Studies have also shown that cocaine or alcohol use during pregnancy can increase the risk of heart defects in the developing baby.
The baby may exhibit a variety of symptoms, such as a rapid heartbeat or breathing difficulties, especially during exercise. These infants may tire easily, which may interfere with nursing and result in poor weight gain.
Some children with heart defects show a pale grayish or bluish coloring of the skin due to poor or inadequate circulation.
Babies and children with heart defects don’t always have symptoms. The defect may not be diagnosed until a doctor hears an abnormal sound called a murmur. Some defects are so slight that the baby may appear healthy for many years after birth.
The prognosis for children with congenital heart defects has improved significantly in the past 40 years. Most heart defects can be corrected or at least helped, by surgery, medicines, and devices such as pacemakers.
There are prenatal tests that can detect many heart defects before birth. A special form of ultrasound may show a fetal heart that is beating too quickly or too slowly. In that case, medications may be able to restore a normal heart rhythm.
Surgical interventions after birth have also improved. Until recently, it was often necessary to make temporary surgical repairs in infancy and postpone full corrective surgery until later in childhood. Today, half of children who require surgery to correct a heart defect can undergo the procedure before age two.