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Heart Disease Health Center

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Congenital Heart Disease Explained

"Congenital heart defect" is another way of saying your heart had a problem in its structure when you were born. You may have a small hole in your heart or something more severe. Although these can be very serious conditions, many can be treated with surgery.

In some cases, doctors can find these problems during pregnancy. You might not get symptoms until adulthood, or you might not get any at all.


Doctors don’t always know why a baby has a congenital heart defect. They tend to run in families. Things that make them more likely include:

  • Problems with genes or chromosomes in the child, such as Down syndrome
  • Taking certain medications or alcohol or drug abuse during pregnancy
  • A viral infection, such as rubella (German measles) in the mother during the first trimester of pregnancy



Most congenital heart problems are structural issues such as holes and leaky valves. For instance:

  • Heart valve defects. A valve may be too narrow or completely closed so blood has a hard time getting through or can’t get through at all. A valve might not close properly, so the blood leaks backwards.
  • Problems with the heart’s "walls," such as those between the chambers (atria and ventricles) of the heart. Holes or passageways between the left and right side of the heart might cause the blood to mix together when it shouldn’t.
  • Issues with the heart’s muscle, which can lead to heart failure.
  • Bad connections among certain blood vessels. In babies, this may let blood that should go to the lungs to get oxygen go to other parts of the body instead or vice versa. These defects can lead to heart failure, which means the heart doesn’t pump as efficiently as it should.



It is possible for you to have a heart-related birth defect and not have symptoms at all. If you do, they can include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Problems with exercise

The symptoms of congenital heart disease in infants and children may include:

  • A bluish tint to the skin, fingernails, and lips (doctors call this cyanosis)
  • Fast breathing and poor feeding
  • Poor weight gain
  • Getting a lot of lung infections
  • Not being able to exercise


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