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A Simple Test Finds Congenital Heart Defects Early

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
congenital heart defects

You have already counted each tiny finger and toe. A simple, painless test can make sure your baby’s heart is healthy, too.

“Abnormal heart valves, holes in the heart and missing heart valves with small heart chambers are are just a few of the heart defects that can occur while a fetus is developing,” says James Strainic, MD, a pediatric cardiologist at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s.

To check for heart defects, your baby’s doctor will perform a test called pulse oximetry. A sensor taped to your baby’s foot checks the level of blood oxygen. If there is a problem, treatment can include medications and surgery.

“Most heart defects block or misdirect blood flow within the heart or the large arteries of the body,” says Dr. Strainic. “However, not all heart defects will be detected through pulse oximetry.”

Infants with a severe heart defect may have noticeable symptoms when they are born, such as:

  • Trouble feeding
  • Bluish skin
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Enlarged heart

“Early detection helps prevent illness and death in babies born with heart defects. If you have concerns regarding your baby’s heart or health, it’s important to talk to your pediatrician,” he adds.

Detecting Heart Defects Later in Childhood

Some infants are born with a heart defect that is so mild it may not be detected until later in childhood. Some of the signs parents and doctors may notice in an older child include:

  • Chest pain
  • Trouble breathing when playing
  • Fatigue
  • Blacking out
  • Irregular blood pressure

Causes of Congenital Heart Defects

Congenital heart defects can result from a number of factors. The risk rises if:

  • The baby is born with Down syndrome or other genetic disorders
  • The mother has diabetes or a family history of congenital heart disease
  • The mother contracts a virus, such as German measles, early in her pregnancy
  • The mother is exposed to alcohol, certain medications or illegal drugs during pregnancy

In many cases, the cause of a heart defect remains a mystery.

“Different types of defects require different kinds of medical attention so seeking treatment is critical,” says Dr. Strainic. “Your child’s doctor will recommend the best course of action.”

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Learning your unborn baby has a heart condition can be overwhelming – but our fetal heart specialists at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital are here to help ease your anxiety. Learn more about treatment for congenital heart conditions at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital.