What we need to know about congenital heart defects

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Congenital heart defects (CHDs) are the most common type of birth defect, affecting the structure and function of a newborn’s heart.

This review explains the various types of CHDs, what causes them, how they are detected, and the ways in which they can be treated, all in straightforward language meant to be accessible for everyone.

CHDs occur when the heart or blood vessels near the heart don’t develop normally before birth. The term “congenital” means that the condition is present from birth.

These defects can affect the walls of the heart, the valves of the heart, and the arteries and veins near the heart. Depending on the type and severity of the defect, it can cause a range of symptoms, from minor to life-threatening.

The causes of CHDs are often a combination of genetic and environmental factors, but in many cases, the exact cause isn’t known. Genetic factors include changes in genes or chromosomes that happen when the baby is developing in the womb.

Environmental factors can include the mother’s health conditions, her diet, or exposures to certain substances during pregnancy, such as medications, chemicals, or infections.

There are numerous types of congenital heart defects, ranging from simple, which might not cause symptoms, to complex, which can cause severe and life-long symptoms.

Simple defects include small holes in the heart, like atrial septal defect (ASD) and ventricular septal defect (VSD), which can sometimes close on their own or might need surgery.

More complex CHDs might involve poorly functioning heart valves or heart valves that don’t allow enough blood through them (such as pulmonary stenosis or aortic stenosis), or more serious conditions like tetralogy of Fallot, which involves multiple abnormalities of the heart that affect blood flow.

Diagnosis of CHDs often occurs either prenatally through ultrasound or after birth based on symptoms and physical examinations.

Symptoms that might indicate a CHD include rapid breathing, cyanosis (a bluish tint to the skin, lips, and fingernails), fatigue, and poor blood circulation.

If a CHD is suspected, a series of tests can be performed to confirm the diagnosis. These tests might include an echocardiogram (an ultrasound of the heart), a chest X-ray, an electrocardiogram (ECG), which measures the electrical activity of the heart, or even more detailed imaging like MRI or CT scans.

Treatment for CHDs depends on the type and severity of the defect. Some mild defects require no treatment at all or just careful monitoring. Others might require medication to help the heart work more efficiently or prevent blood clots.

More severe defects typically require surgical intervention to repair the heart or the blood vessels around it. In some cases, multiple surgeries are required as the child grows.

The advancements in medical technology and surgical techniques over the past few decades have significantly improved the outlook for children with CHDs. Many children who undergo successful treatment for CHDs go on to live healthy, productive lives.

However, they may still require regular follow-up with a cardiologist throughout their life to monitor their condition and manage any long-term effects of their defect or its treatment.

Awareness and early detection are key in managing CHDs effectively. Understanding these defects helps families prepare for the necessary care and treatment, ensuring the best outcomes for their children.

This review aims to provide clear and helpful information about congenital heart defects for families navigating this challenging condition.

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