Congenital Heart Disease Explained

Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on October 08, 2019

"Congenital heart defect" is another way of saying your heart had a problem when you were born. You may have had a small hole in it 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 may 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:


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

Heart valve defects: One may be too narrow or completely closed. That makes it hard for blood to get through. Sometimes, it can’t get through at all. In other cases, the valve might not close properly, so the blood leaks backward.


Problems with the heart’s "walls": It could be the ones between the chambers (atria and ventricles) of your heart. Holes or passageways between the left and right side of the heart might cause blood to mix when it shouldn’t.

Issues with the heart’s muscle: These can lead to heart failure, which means the heart doesn’t pump as efficiently as it should.

Bad connections among blood vessels: In babies, this may let blood that should go to the lungs go to other parts of the body instead, or vice versa. These defects can deprive blood of oxygen and lead to organ failure.


It’s possible for you to have a heart-related birth defect and not have symptoms. 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, a condition caused by a lack of oxygenated blood)
  • Fast breathing and poor feeding
  • Poor weight gain
  • Lung infections
  • An inability to exercise


Doctors may find some problems before a baby is born. Other problems may be found in infants, kids, or adults. The doctor listens to your heartbeat to check your health. If they hear an unusual sound or heart murmur, they might order more tests, such as:

Echocardiogram: A type of ultrasound that takes pictures of your heart. There are different kinds, so ask your doctor what you can expect.

Cardiac catheterization: A doctor guides a very thin, flexible tube (called a catheter) through a blood vessel in your arm or leg to reach your heart. They put dye through the catheter and then use X-ray videos to see inside your heart.

Chest X-ray: These can reveal signs of heart failure.

Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG): This measures the heart’s electrical activity.

MRI: You get a scan that lets doctors see the heart’s structure.


You might not need any treatment. Or you may need medications, surgery, or other procedures. If you have congenital heart disease, you’ll need to see a heart specialist on a regular basis.


People with congenital heart defects are more likely to have inflammation of the inner layer of their heart (a condition doctors call endocarditis), especially if their heart was repaired or replaced through surgery.

To protect yourself:

  • Tell all doctors and dentists you have congenital heart disease. You may want to carry a card with this information.
  • Call your doctor if you have symptoms of an infection (sore throat, general body aches, fever).
  • Take good care of your teeth and gums to prevent infections. Make regular visits to your dentist.
  • If your doctor recommends it, take antibiotics before you have any medical work that may cause bleeding, like dental work and most surgeries. Check with your doctor about the type and amount of antibiotics that you should take.
WebMD Medical Reference



American Heart Association.

CDC: "Facts About Congenital Heart Defects."

U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Endocarditis."

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