Congenital Heart Disease: Heart Defects, Types, and Causes

  • February 13, 2020

Congenital heart defects are heart abnormalities present at birth. This is a problem that occurs as the baby’s heart is developing during pregnancy even before a baby is born.

A baby’s heart begins developing at conception but forms completely by eight weeks into pregnancy. Congenital heart defects happen during the first 8 weeks of the baby’s development. For the heart to form correctly, it must undergo specific steps. Congenital heart defects are often a result of one of these steps not happening when required. For instance, a hole may be left where a dividing wall had to be formed, or a single blood vessel where two should have developed.

The American Heart Association (AHA) points out that individuals often use the terms “defect” and “disease” interchangeably in this context. But the AHA says that “defect” is the more accurate term to use.

General Signs of Congenital Heart Diseases

Serious congenital heart defects become evident either soon after birth or within the first few months of their life. Signs and symptoms could include the following:

  • Pale grey or blue skin colour
  • Rapid breathing
  • Swelling in the abdomen, areas around eyes, or legs
  • Shortness of breath when being fed, resulting in poor weight gain

Less serious congenital heart defects may not even be diagnosed until later in childhood as a child may not have noticeable signs. If signs and symptoms are evident in older children, they may include some of the following:

  • Falling short of breath during exercises or activities
  • Getting tired while exercising or performing any activity
  • Fainting during exercise or activity
  • Swelling in ankles, hands, or feet

However, if you notice the abovementioned signs as a child or in your children, it is essential to see a paediatric cardiologist immediately.

Congenital Heart Defect in Adulthood

Children with CHD may undergo surgeries during their childhood to repair a heart defect. In most cases, the heart usually works normally after the procedure. However, some individuals may have a problem when they grow old. If there is scar tissue from a previous surgery in the heart, this can increase the risk of problems.

The individual may experience:

  • abnormal heart rhythms, known as arrhythmia
  • dizziness and fainting
  • swelling of body tissues and organs, known as oedema
  • cyanosis
  • breathlessness
  • fatigue, particularly after exertion

There are at least 18 types of congenital heart defects. Most of these affect the valves, blood vessels, or walls of your heart. Some of the common ones are as follows:

Hole in the Heart (Septal Defect)

This means you are born with a septum or hole in the wall that separates the left and right sides of the heart. The hole permits blood from the two sides to blend.

Atrial Septal Defect (ASD)

An ASD is a hole in the wall in the upper chambers or between the right and left atria of the heart. This allows blood from the left atrium to mix with that from the right atrium.

Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD)

A VSD is a hole in that part of the septum which separates the heart’s ventricles or lower chambers. If you have a VSD, blood is pumped back to the lungs instead of the body.

Tetralogy of Fallot

Sometimes, having holes in the heart or septal defects may lead to congenital heart problems such as the tetralogy of Fallot, which is a combination of four defects, including the following:

  • A large VSD
  • Thickened wall in the lower chamber or around the right ventricle
  • The aorta is located above the hole in the ventricular wall
  • A stiff pulmonary valve which prevents blood from flowing from the heart to lungs

Treatment for Congenital Heart Defects

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly one in four infants born with a CHD require surgery during their first year. In some cases, if the defect is small, it won’t need treatment. In other cases, symptoms may also improve without treatment. If an individual requires surgery, a surgeon may:

  • conduct the procedure through a catheter
  • perform an open heart surgery

The procedure will depend on the type of defect the person has. Options include the following:

  • A repair
  • Heart transplant
  • Valve replacement
  • Angioplasty

Living with a Congenital Heart Defect

People who live with CHD need to take some precautions that will help reduce the risk of complications. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) recommends the following:

  • Maintaining a healthful diet for proper growth and good health
  • Getting regular exercise to strengthen your heart
  • Taking medications and following the doctor’s suggestions
  • Discussing precautions that are necessary during pregnancy
  • Knowing the signs of related health conditions, like cardiovascular problems, liver diseases, and diabetes

People should also be aware of the warning signs and symptoms of a heart attack so that they can get help if one occurs. Some of these include the following:

  • pain in the arm, back, chest, neck, and jaw
  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness, nausea, and vomiting

If you experience the abovementioned symptoms, it is essential to consult a cardiologist.

Future Advancements for Congenital Heart Disease Patients

Just a few decades ago, being diagnosed with a CHD was fatal to most individuals and their families, especially in the absence of an accurate diagnosis. A CHD can still be life-threatening, however, medical advances over the last 70 years indicate that the chances of survival are significantly higher today than what they were in the past.

Today, doctors expect that about 96% of individuals who are diagnosed with CHD and receive hospital treatment will survive. Future options for CHD treatment may include substituting prostheses with bio-engineered tissues and fixing problems in the developing heart of a child before he/she is born.

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