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What Is Congenital Heart Defect? Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

  • timeline Dr. Zafar Moideen
  • 3 Min Read

A congenital heart defect is a problem with the structure of the heart. It is the most common type of congenital malformation and can be cured with medications, surgeries and some may even resolve on its own. 

Defects can be identified through the walls, valves, arteries and veins near the heart. They can disrupt normal blood flow of the heart. Blood flow will be reduced and the flow can go in the wrong direction or even can be completely blocked.

What are the signs or symptoms?

Serious congenital heart problems– Generally it can be observed in soon after birth or within a few months after birth. These symptoms can be observed in this case:

  • Breathing rapidly
  • Swelling around the eyes, legs and abdomen
  • Cyanosis (blue skin colour or pale grey)
  • While feeding, shortness of breath can be observed resulting in poor weight gain

Mild congenital heart problems– These get detected in late childhood. Your child may not show any symptoms or distinguishable signs. Signs that can be observed in older children can be:

  • Shortness of breath during any activity or exercise
  • Dizzy and unsteady during activities and exercises
  • Swelling in the feet, ankles or hand.
  • Easily gets tired during performing any activity or exercise.


Doctors and researchers do not always know the root cause leading to impaired development of the heart. In most of the cases, no specific cause can be found. They tend to run in families. Some congenital heart defects occur more often in families, so there may be a genetic link to it and also other heart disorders.

Other reasons for congenital heart defects include certain viral infections affecting the mother during pregnancy, taking medication such as anti-seizure medication (anti-epileptics) and thalidomide. Cases are also seen in cases of drug or alcohol abuse during pregnancy.

Congenital heart problems range from simple to complex. Some can be treated by a pediatrician, with medications. Some will need surgery, sometimes as soon as the first few hours after birth. Some defects tend to even cure themselves/close up on their own, such as Atrial Septal Defect (ASD), which is known to spontaneously close on it’s own by adulthood in 40% of the cases.

Some children will have a combination of defects and they need to undergo surgeries several times for the rest of their lives.


  • Echocardiogram: A type of ultrasound that helps in visualising the heart chambers, muscles, walls and valves. There are different types, so ask your doctor what to expect.
  • Cardiac catheterization: The doctor directs a very small, flexible tube (called a catheter) through a blood vessel in your arm or leg to reach your heart. They dye a catheter and use special x-ray machines and imaging methods to see inside your heart.  
  • Chest X-ray: This can help in seeing some of the common heart shapes seen in different congenital heart defects 
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG): This measures the electrical activity of the heart.
  • MRI: This scan lets doctors see in-depth images of the heart chambers, assessing flow, heart valves and more.

Treatment & management

Not everyone with congenital heart disease (CHD) needs treatment. Some people may only need to visit a cardiologist and be monitored. In some cases, surgery or cardiac catheterization may be necessary to minimize the effects of heart damage or to correct a defect. Even if the condition is treated in childhood, some complications may develop over time.

Many therapies are available to help the heart function more efficiently. Sometimes one child can have many conditions and each issue may need treatment. Children and adults with congenital heart disease may need treatment for many common conditions, including:

  • Heart failure 
  • Heart rhythm problems
  • Pulmonary hypertension

Options for the care and treatment of congenital heart defects include:

  • Surgical procedures
  • Cardiac catheterizations
  • Heart transplant ( make this point, the last one)
  • Routine checks and observation (make this the first point please)
  • Medications

Risk factors

Being careful about food and drinks consumed during your pregnancy is essential as it determines the baby’s health. Some of the risk factors for Congenital heart defects are 

  • Diabetes
  • Some medications during pregnancy like thalidomide, angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, lithium and statins
  • Consumption of alcohol during pregnancy
  • Rubella, also known as German measles during pregnancy
  • Smoking during pregnancy
  • Heredity (If the family has a previous history of congenital heart defects)

If you have any query related to child health or need a second opinion, you can talk to our pediatricians online on the MFine app from the comfort of your home.

  • timeline
  • Written by

    Dr. Zafar Moideen

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