Why Congenital Heart Defects Often Are Not Life-Threatening

Happy pregnant woman and toddler daughter

One of the most common types of birth defects are congenital heart defects. Each year, more than 35,000 babies in the United States are born with congenital heart defects – that’s about eight out of every 1,000 newborns.

Congenital heart defect (CHD) is a broad term used to describe a wide range of conditions that are present at birth. They can range from relatively simple arrhythmias to complex structural defects that make it impossible for the heart to do its job.

Regardless of the diagnosis and its severity, hearing the words, “there’s something wrong with your baby’s heart,” can be alarming for parents.

“A congenital heart defect generally alters the flow of blood through the heart, often resulting in serious consequences,” pediatric cardiologist Christopher Snyder, MD says. “There are many types of congenital heart defects, ranging from those that pose a relatively small threat to the health of the child to those that require special medical care right after birth.”

According to Dr. Snyder, the most common congenital heart defects in newborns are:

  • Ventricular septal defect, in which there is a hole in the wall separating the heart's two lower chambers
  • Atrial septal defect, where a hole exists between the walls dividing the heart's top two chambers
  • Patent ductus arteriosus, which causes an abnormal blood flow between two of the major arteries connected to the heart

“The good news is all of these conditions are rarely life-threatening,” he says.

Symptoms of Congenital Heart Disease

CHDs are often diagnosed shortly after birth when the baby is first examined.

Symptoms may include an abnormal heart rhythm or murmur, a bluish tint to the skin, shortness of breath, failure to feed and generalized swelling.

Sometimes, a CHD can be detected before birth using advanced technology called diagnostic fetal echocardiography. Typically done between 14 and 16 weeks of pregnancy, a fetal diagnosis allows the doctors to develop a treatment plan that can begin immediately after birth.

The Fetal Heart Program at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital is the only provider in the region equipped to perform early diagnostic fetal echocardiography.

Good Outlook for Babies with CHD

Some small defects may resolve on their own without intervention. Others may require treatment that may include medications, implanted heart devices, catheterization procedures and open heart surgery. Some very serious cases may require a heart transplant.

The good news is, many babies born with congenital heart defects are successfully treated and go on to live active, productive, even extraordinary lives – Olympic gold medalist Shaun White is living proof of this.

Shaun was born with Tetralogy of Fallot, a common but very serious congenital heart condition that features four structural defects and can only be treated with open heart surgery. Shaun, in fact, had three open heart procedures, two of them before his first birthday.

In spite of the physical challenges he faced as a young child – or perhaps, because of them – Shaun pursued his athletic dreams and refused to let his heart condition limit him. A gifted snowboarder, he turned pro at 13 and, at 16 become the youngest snowboarder ever to win the U.S. Open. By the time he was 19, he had won his first Olympic gold medal.

Shaun’s story can give parents hope. Not every child will go on to be an Olympic athlete, but it’s important to know that congenital heart conditions are treatable and, with expert medical care and support, many of these children can grow up to reach their fullest potential.

The experts at UH Rainbow Babies & Children Hospital deal with congenital heart defects every day and collaborate to ensure each patient has access to the most advanced technology and surgical techniques.

“Nearly every form of congenital heart disease can be treated by our UH pediatric cardiology team, which has successfully performed thousands of operations on newborns and children of all ages,” Dr. Snyder says.

Once children reach age 18, they need to transition from pediatric to adult congenital heart care.

The team at University Hospitals is unique in that it includes pediatric specialists who monitor the original heart defect and adult cardiac specialists who monitor and manage congenital and acquired co-morbidities. The pediatrician and the adult cardiologist will work together to ensure that both the congenital heart condition and any additional heart concerns that may be acquired as an adult, are monitored and managed.

Related Links

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital
The Congenital Heart Collaborative
Fetal Heart Program

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