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Facts about Congenital Heart Defects

Three boys with one making a heart shape with his hands

Congenital heart defects are conditions that are present at birth and can affect the structure of a baby’s heart and the way it works. They can affect how blood flows through the heart and out to the rest of the body. Congenital heart defects can vary from mild (such as a small hole between the chambers of the heart) to severe (such as missing or poorly formed portions of the heart).

Signs and symptoms for congenital heart defects depend on the type and severity of the particular defect. Some defects might have few or no signs or symptoms, while others might cause a baby to have bluish tinted nails or lips or fast or troubled breathing, to tire easily when feeding, or to be very sleepy.

Causes and Risk Factors

The causes of congenital heart defects among most babies are unknown. Some babies have heart defects because of changes in their genes or chromosomes. Congenital heart defects also are thought to be caused by a combination of genes and other risk factors, such as exposures to things in the environment, maternal diet, or maternal medication use.

CDC continues to study congenital heart defects to learn how to prevent them. Many structures in the baby (such as the heart) often are formed before many women realize they are pregnant. CDC's study collaborators have reported important findings about some pregnancy exposures that increase the risk for congenital heart defects: obesity, diabetes, and smoking. If a woman is obese, has diabetes, or smokes and is pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant, she should talk with her doctor about ways to increase her chances of having a healthy baby.

Learn more about research on congenital heart defects »

Diagnosis

Some congenital heart defects may be diagnosed during pregnancy using a special type of ultrasound called a fetal echocardiogram, which creates pictures of the heart of the fetus. However, some congenital heart defects are not detected until later in life, during childhood or adulthood. Usually, though, congenital heart defects are diagnosed at birth or shortly afterward. If a health care provider suspects a congenital heart defect is present, the baby can get several tests (such as blood tests, an X-ray, and an echocardiogram) to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment

Treatment for congenital heart defects depends on the type and severity of the defect present. Some might get better by themselves; however, others might need one or more surgeries to repair the heart or blood vessels. Some also can be treated without surgery with a procedure called cardiac catheterization. A long tube, called a catheter, is threaded through the blood vessels into the heart where a doctor can take measurements, do tests, or repair the problem.

Living With a Congenital Heart Defect

As medical care and treatment have advanced, infants with congenital heart defects are living longer and healthier lives. Many now are living into adulthood. It is estimated that nearly one million adults in the United States are living with a congenital heart defect. It is important for children and adults living with a congenital heart defect to see a specialized health care provider regularly throughout their lives.

Learn more about living with a congenital heart defect »

Other Health Problems Associated With Congenital Heart Defects

Many people with a congenital heart defect lead typical, independent lives without difficulty, while others might develop disability over time. Some people with a heart defect also have genetic problems or other health conditions that increase their risk for disability.

Even with improved treatments, many people with a congenital heart defect are not cured. People with a congenital heart defect can develop other health problems over time, depending on their specific heart defect, the number of heart defects they have, and the severity of their heart defect. For example, some other health problems that might develop include irregular heart beat (arrhythmias), increased risk of infection in the heart muscle (infective endocarditis), or the heart might become weak. People with a congenital heart defect will need routine checkups with a cardiologist (heart doctor) to stay as healthy as possible. They also might need further operations after initial childhood surgeries. It is important for people with a congenital heart defect to visit their doctor on a regular basis and discuss their health, including their specific heart condition, with their doctor.

Specific Congenital Heart Defects

CDC has information on the following congenital heart defects:

Genes: Each cell in the human body contains thousands of genes. Genes have a special code called DNA that determines many things about the person. For example, what people will look like and whether they are likely to have certain illnesses.

Chromosomes: A chromosome contains a single, long piece of DNA with many different genes. Every human cell contains 23 pairs of chromosomes. There are 22 pairs of numbered chromosomes, called autosomes, and one pair of sex chromosomes, which can be XX or XY. Each pair contains two chromosomes, one from each parent, which means that children get half of their chromosomes from their mother and half from their father.

 

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  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities

    Division of Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities

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    Atlanta, GA 30333
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  • Page last reviewed: February 10, 2014
  • Page last updated: February 10, 2014
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