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What Is Congenital Heart Disease?

by Melissa Bell
6 minutes read

If you have congenital heart disease, it’s something you were born with and refers to one or more abnormalities in the structure of your heart. The most common congenital heart defect changes the way blood flows through your heart. These abnormalities can be quite simple, causing few if any problems or they may be more complicated and can even be life-threatening.

Today, diagnosis and treatment have become much more sophisticated than in the past so that babies who would have previously died of congenital heart disease are now able to survive well into adulthood. However, some of the symptoms and signs of congenital heart disease can occur much later in life, and even in adults who previously received treatment as a child. Anyone who has congenital heart disease may need care from a cardiologist right throughout life. Your primary healthcare provider can tell you how frequently it’s necessary to see a doctor for checks.

What Is Congenital Heart Disease

What Are the Symptoms of Congenital Heart Defects?

Some congenital heart defects won’t cause any signs or symptoms, while sometimes the symptoms can occur later in life. It’s even possible for signs to recur years after someone originally received treatment for a heart defect. Common signs during adulthood include arrhythmia, which is an abnormal heart rhythm, cyanosis, where the skin, fingernails, and lips develop a bluish tint and feeling short of breath. People with a congenital heart defect may find they tire more easily when they exert themselves will take exercise. Another possible side-effect is edema, where the body organs or tissues will swell.

Anybody who experiences chest pain or shortness of breath or has other alarming symptoms should always seek emergency medical care.

What Causes Congenital Heart Disease?

Nobody is quite sure what causes most cases of congenital heart disease as they develop in the womb. It’s quite possible that some cases may be hereditary. A healthy heart has four separate changes, two on the right and to the left. Each side is used slightly differently and pumps blood through the body. The chambers on the right side of the heart transport blood to the lungs, carrying the blood through pulmonary arteries.

Once the blood is in the lungs, it absorbs oxygen and is then transported to the left side of the heart through the pulmonary veins. Next, the left side of the heart pumps the blood through the aorta, where it is transported around the rest of the body. It’s possible for congenital heart disease to affect any of these chambers, as well as heart valves and the septum which is the wall of tissue separating the chambers and the arteries.

How Can Congenital Heart Disease Reappear during Adulthood?

Some adults who receive treatment for heart defects during childhood will find they need further treatment during adulthood. Even though the heart has been repaired to improve its function, it may not be completely normal. Although treatment during childhood may have been a complete success, a problem may worsen with age. Also, some people will have had heart defects that weren’t serious enough to require treatment during childhood, but which have now become worse and need treatment. Sometimes childhood surgeries may have cause complications like scar tissue that can lead to arrhythmia.

Are There Any Risk Factors for Congenital Heart Disease?

It’s possible certain genetic and environmental risk factors can increase the possibility of developing a heart defect. If your mother had German measles during pregnancy, it could affect heart development. When the mother has Type I or Type II diabetes, it can also affect heart development.

This isn’t the case with gestational diabetes. Certain medications taken during pregnancy can cause congenital heart defects. Smoking during pregnancy can increase the risk of having a child with a congenital heart defect. Congenital heart disease can also be hereditary, and it’s quite often associated with other syndromes like Down syndrome.

What Type of Complications Can Be Caused by Congenital Heart Disease?

Arrhythmia or an abnormal heart rhythm can occur when the electrical impulses that regulate the heartbeat don’t function correctly. This problem can cause your heart to beat too slowly or too quickly or irregularly. There’s the possibility that severe arrhythmia could cause death without treatment.

Endocarditis is an infection of the inner lining of the heart and can develop when bacteria enter your bloodstream and get inside the heart. Without treatment, endocarditis can damage the heart valves or may trigger a stroke. People who have received an artificial heart valve or whose heart has been repaired with artificial material may need to take antibiotics to lower the risk of developing endocarditis.

Stroke is caused when the blood supply to part of the brain is interrupted or reduced. Sometimes a congenital heart defect will enable a blood clot to go through the heart and to enter the brain.

Heart failure or congestive heart failure is where the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s demands. Certain types of congenital heart disease can cause heart failure.

Pulmonary hypertension is a form of high blood pressure affecting the arteries in the lungs. It’s possible for some congenital heart defects to cause more blood to flow to the lungs, this creates a greater amount of pressure, so the heart must work harder, causing it to weaken and sometimes to even fail.

Some people with congenital heart disease will have a heart valve problem, where the valves are abnormal.

Diagnosing and Treating Congenital Heart Disease

If a congenital heart disease is suspected, your doctor will carry out a physical exam and can order an array of heart tests designed to evaluate the condition of your heart and its efficiency closely. Once they have all the information needed, they can recommend the most suitable treatment which will depend on the severity of the condition. Sometimes treatment will aim to correct the congenital heart defect or will help you cope with the complications.

Minor heart defects can be monitored, or your doctor may prescribe something to help the heart work more efficiently and to prevent blood clots or an irregular heartbeat. There are implantable devices such as pacemakers that can correct irregular heartbeats that may be life-threatening. Sometimes congenital heart defects are repaired using catheterization techniques, passing a catheter into a leg vein and guiding it to the heart. Once in the heart, the doctor can use tiny tools passed through the catheter to repair the defect. More serious defects may require open-heart surgery or a heart transplant.

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