What is a congenital heart defect?

November 12, 2012

What is a congenital heart defect?

Congenital heart defects are present at the birth of a child and may or may not require medical attention.

If a heart defect is described as congenital it means that the defect was present at birth. There are many such defects, some of which are simple, some of which are extremely complex and even life-threatening. A congenital heart defect will change the normal flow of blood to the heart, some require no medical intervention. Congenital heart defects involve the heartÂ’s structure and may involve -

  • The interior walls of the heart

  • The valves inside the heart

  • The arteries and veins which carry blood to the heart from the body or from the body to the heart.

Diagnosis and treatment

In recent years vast improvements have been made in both the diagnosis and treatment of complex congenital heart defects meaning that most children with this condition now live active, productive lives with a normal lifespan.

Many types of congenital heart defects

Congenital heart defects range from a relatively simple hole in the septum which allows mixing of the blood from the right and left sides of the heart to more complex defects which may affect heart development, involve blood vessels or a combination of defects.

Examples of simple heart defects include -

  • Septal defects – the wall of the heart which separates the left and right sided chambers is called the septum – a hole in this wall will allow oxygenated and de-oxygenated blood to mix. Septal defects may occur in the atria or the ventricles. This kind of defect can cause increased blood pressure; the extra workload on the heart can result in poor growth, scarring of the arteries and even heart failure.

  • Patent ductus arteriosus – this is a fairly common defect which occurs soon after birth. The ductus arteriosus is supposed to close very soon after birth, should it fail to do so the result will be an abnormal blood flow between the aorta and the pulmonary artery. The only indication of PDA may be a heart murmur although tiredness, lethargy, failure to thrive, shortness of breath and sweating may also be present.

  • Narrowed valves – valves may be defective in a number of ways – they may not fully open or close or there may be no hole present for the blood to flow through.

More complex heart defects are repaired with surgery. The most common complex defect, tetralogy of Fallot, is actually a combination of four -

  • Pulmonary valve stenosis

  • A large ventricular septum defect

  • An overriding aorta – present directly over the ventricular septum defect

  • Right ventricular hypertrophy – thickened muscles in the right ventricle as a result of working more than normal.

This complex heart defect means that oxygen poor blood flows to the body as it is unable to reach the lungs for re-oxygenation. Tetralogy of Fallot is repaired as soon as is possible with open heart surgery and patients will need to be in the care of a cardiologist for the rest of their lives to ensure maintenance of good health.

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