They’re the most common kind of birth defect.
There are at least 18 different types of congenital heart defects. Most affect the walls, valves, or blood vessels of your heart. Some are serious and may need several surgeries and treatments.
Hole in the Heart (Septal Defect)
This means you’re born with a hole in the wall, or septum, that separates the left and right sides of your heart. The hole lets blood from the two sides mix.
Atrial Septal Defect (ASD)
An ASD is a hole in the wall between the upper chambers, or the right and left atria, of your heart. A hole here lets blood from the left atrium mix with blood in the right atrium.
Some ASDs close on their own. Your doctor may need to repair a medium or large ASD with open-heart surgery or another procedure.
He might seal the hole with a minimally invasive catheter procedure. He inserts a small tube, or catheter, in your blood vessel all the way to your heart. Then he can cover the hole with a variety of devices.
Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD)
A small VSD may also close on its own. But if yours is larger, you may need surgery to repair it.
Complete Atrioventricular Canal Defect (CAVC)
This is the most serious septal defect. It’s when you have a hole in your heart that affects all four chambers.
A CAVC prevents oxygen-rich blood from going to the right places in your body. Your doctor can repair it with patches. But some people need more than one surgery to treat it.
Valves control the flow of blood through your heart’s ventricles and arteries. And some minor heart defects can involve the valves, including:
Stenosis. When your valves become narrow or stiff, and won’t open or allow blood to pass easily.
Regurgitation. Your valves don’t close tightly, which lets your blood leak backward through them.
Atresia. This happens when your valve isn't formed right or has no opening to let your blood pass through. It causes more complicated heart problems.
Ebstein’s anomaly. This is a defect in another heart valve, the tricuspid valve, which may keep it from closing tightly. Babies who have Ebstein’s also often have an atrial septal defect (ASD).
Pulmonary valve stenosis. This is the most common valve defect in newborns. Babies with severe cases often have strained right ventricles. Your doctor can usually treat it with a catheter procedure. She will use a catheter, or thin tube, with a balloon on the end to inflate and stretch open the strained valve.
Tetralogy of Fallot
Sometimes, if you have holes in your heart, or septal defects, you might also have other congenital heart problems. One is called the tetralogy of Fallot, which is a combination of four defects, including:
- A large ventricular septal defect (VSD)
- Thickened wall around your right ventricle, or lower chamber
- Your aorta is located above the hole in your ventricular wall
- Stiff pulmonary valve that prevents blood from flowing easily from the heart to the lungs
A baby born with tetralogy of Fallot may need to have open heart surgery soon after birth to fix the problems. If the pulmonary valve issue isn’t too serious, the doctor might talk to you about waiting until your child is a little older.
Patent ductus arteriosus (PDA). Simply put, this is a hole in your baby’s aorta that doesn’t close.
During pregnancy, the hole allows your baby’s blood to bypass his lungs and get oxygen from your umbilical cord. After he’s born, he starts to get oxygen from his own lungs, and the hole has to close.
If it doesn’t, it’s called patent ductus arteriosus, or PDA. Small PDAs may get better on their own. A larger one could need surgery.
Truncus arteriosus. This is when your baby is born with one major artery instead of two that carry blood to the rest of his body. He will need surgery as an infant to repair the defect, and may need more procedures later in life.
I-transposition of the great arteries. This means that the right and left chambers of your baby’s heart are reversed. His blood still flows normally, but over time, his right ventricle doesn’t work as well because it must pump harder.
D-transposition of the great arteries. In this condition, the two main arteries of your baby’s heart are reversed. His blood doesn’t move through the lungs to get oxygen, and oxygen-rich blood doesn’t flow throughout his body. He will have to have surgery to repair this condition, usually within the first month of his life.
Single ventricle defects. Babies are sometimes born with a small lower chamber of the heart, or with one valve missing. Different types of single ventricle defects include:
- Hypoplastic left heart syndrome: Your baby has an undeveloped aorta and lower left chamber, or ventricle.
- Pulmonary atresia/intact ventricular septum: Your baby has no pulmonary valve, which controls blood flow from the heart to the lungs.
- Tricuspid atresia: Your baby has no tricuspid valve, which should be between the upper and lower chambers of the right side of his heart.
In some cases, your doctor can spot congenital heart problems when your baby is still in the womb. But he can’t always diagnose the defect until after birth and your baby shows signs of a problem.
Many mild congenital heart defects are diagnosed in childhood or even later because they don’t cause any obvious symptoms. Some people don’t find out they have them until they’re adults.
Whatever the type of congenital heart defect, rest assured that with advances in diagnostic tools and treatments, there’s a much greater chance of a long, normal life than ever before.