Congenital Heart Defects: Treatments

If you or a loved one has a congenital heart defect, the chances it can be fixed are better than ever. A congenital heart defect is a problem with the structure of the heart that is present at birth. With advances in medicines and procedures, folks that have them are living longer and better lives.

For some people, treatment may include many surgeries or other procedures. For others, it takes only one.

Some children and adults may need to take medicine for the rest of their lives. They might also need to make regular visits to their heart specialist, who is called a cardiologist.

Fortunately, doctors have more options than ever to fix these congenital heart problems.

Sometimes, You Can Just Take Medicine

Congenital defects can put a strain on the heart, causing it to work harder.

To stop your heart from getting weaker with this extra work, your doctor may try to treat you with medications. They are aimed at easing the burden on the heart muscle.

You need to control your blood pressure if you have any type of heart problem.

Some common medicines that help lower blood pressure might also slow the heart rate and reduce fluid build-up in your body.

Types of Medications

Your doctor may talk to you about two widely used types of medicines that lower blood pressure.

They are “ARBs” and “ACE” inhibitors. They relax blood vessels. That makes it easier for your heart to pump blood.

Doctors might add other medication options for you as well.

Beta blockers are medicines that slow your heart rate and help widen arteries. Some examples of beta blockers that your doctor might prescribe are atenolol (Tenormin), carvedilol (Coreg CR), or metoprolol (Lopressor).

Diuretics, also called water pills, lower fluid levels. Less blood volume can lower your blood pressure.

Medications may be enough to help treat mild cases or be used when surgery isn’t a good option. Other times, doctors will need to do more.

Cardiac Catheterization

A doctor often can fix a serious congenital heart defect with a catheter, which is a slim, flexible tube.


In a cardiac catheterization, the doctor inserts the catheter into a blood vessel in your leg. They then carefully guide it to your heart to make the repair.


Surgeons can do a lot with these catheters.

They can repair holes in the wall that separates your heart’s left and right sides. They may also widen a narrowed artery or stiff value. And they can use one to close off a vessel if it’s carrying blood in the wrong direction, or place a patch over a hole.

They can also fit a catheter with a tiny balloon and direct it toward your valve or artery that isn’t working right.

The surgeon can then inflate the balloon to open up your valve or artery. When it is done for a valve, it’s called a valvuloplasty. When it is done in an artery, it is called an angioplasty.

While catheters are a great option, some heart problems need surgery either because of the nature of the defect or its location.

Open-Heart Surgery

Sometimes, a surgeon has to cut through your breastbone to operate on your heart directly. That’s what happens in open-heart surgery.


A surgeon will stitch or patch holes in the heart when a catheter can’t do the job. The same is true for more complex valve and blood vessel problems.

Because a heart grows in size right along with its “owner,” some people may need more surgeries or other procedures years later.

If you need open-heart surgery, you’ll get general anesthesia, so you won’t be awake or feel pain during the procedure.

What Are the Risks?

Open-heart surgery and cardiac catheterizations can save lives. But as with any procedure, there are some possible problems, such as infections. Catheter procedures can cause some problems, such as possible damage to a blood vessel. You should talk these issues over with your doctor.


After surgery, a baby is taken to what’s called the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU. Adult patients go to a standard intensive care unit, or ICU.


Assuming that your recovery goes well, you will transfer later to what hospitals call a “step-down” room before you will be able to go home.


You might feel some pain in the days after open-heart surgery.

Your doctor should give you instructions about your medications and how to care for the area after your surgery. You should also ask about how to look for signs of any infections or other problems, and when you should call your doctor.

Because catheters need only a small cut in the leg, the recovery is much easier and faster than it is for open-heart surgery.

With either type of procedure, your follow-up appointments are important. You should feel free to ask any questions, whether they are about how to bathe your child who had heart surgery or about what kind of care you’ll need in the future.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on June 16, 2020



Mayo Clinic: “Congenital Heart Defects in Children: Treatments and Drugs.”

American Heart Association: “Therapeutic Cardiac Catheterizations for Children with Congenital Heart Disease.”

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “How Are Congenital Heart Defects Treated?”

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