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Congenital heart disease

What is a congenital heart defect?   

A congenital heart defect results when the heart, or blood vessels near the heart, don’t develop normally before birth. Heart defects are the most common type of birth defect, occurring in about one in 100 live births. Each year in Virginia about 800 babies are born with a congenital heart defect. The terms congenital heart disease and congenital heart defect are used interchangeably. 

Types of congenital heart defects

Congenital heart defects can be divided into several categories that help experts and you understand what kind of difficulties your baby might experience.

The most common defects are:

  • Holes in the heart 
  • Tight or leaky valves (which direct blood flow to and from the heart) 
  • Hearts with abnormal connections 
  • Narrowing in the arteries that carry blood from the heart 

Nearly 400 of those 800 patients in Virginia will need open heart surgery within the first year of life. With our pediatric heart center, patients and families can receive their heart care right in the heart of Central Virginia.   

What causes congenital heart defects?

All congenital heart defects are Genetic in origin but usually are spontaneous changes in the genes and not inherited.  Most congenital heart defects can be detected early in fetal development  (16-18 weeks gestation).  In general, there is nothing a mother or father did or can do to ‘cause’ a congenital heart defect. There are factors that can help us determine if the mother and the fetus are at risk for a congenital heart defect during pregnancy so we can do an ultrasound test and diagnose a defect as early as possible. 

Your child might be at an increased risk of developing a heart defect if: 

  • There are changes in their individual genes or chromosomes 
  • The mom is taking certain medications during pregnancy 
  • The mom has a viral infection in the first trimester of pregnancy 
  • The mom has underlying health conditions 

Signs and symptoms of cardiac problems in babies and infants

Often, congenital heart defects will not cause symptoms until they are severe. Cardiac problems in babies may show symptoms such as: 

  • Heart murmurs (abnormal “swishing” sound during the heartbeat cycle) 
  • Breathing complaints or rapid breathing 
  • Poor feeding (child tires out and becomes exhausted or sweaty when eating) 
  • Blue color of the skin and body (cyanosis) 
  • Abnormal blood pressure 

Other heart defects may remain silent and present suddenly with symptoms with or without exercise. These symptoms can include: 

  • Passing out during exercise (syncope) 
  • Chest pain during exercise 
  • Heart racing or skipping beats while at rest 
  • Decreasing exercise endurance from prior performance 
  • Shortness of breath on exertion that previously did not happen at that level of exercise 

Diagnosing children’s heart defects 

At CHoR, we have access to the latest technology to assist in both diagnosis and treatment, using non-invasive testing and cardiac imaging approaches.  

Our multidisciplinary team crosses disciplines to ensure the right doctors, therapists and technicians are helping to diagnose and care for your child. 

This includes specialists from: 

When a family learns that their unborn baby might have a heart condition, our team works together to care for them through every stage – from diagnosis to delivery, and surgery when necessary.  

What treatment options are available?

Congenital heart problems can range from simple to complex. Some heart problems can be watched by your baby's doctor and managed with medicines while others will require surgery. A baby may even grow out of some heart problems. 

Our pediatric cardiologists will help diagnose, treat and help your child manage care from infancy to adulthood. 

Treatment options might include: 

  • Cardiac surgery to repair the heart or blood vessels. 
  • Cardiac catheterization where a long tube is threaded through the blood vessels into the heart, so a doctor can take measurements and pictures, run tests or repair the abnormality.  
  • Procedures to improve blood flow and the way the heart works so that people can live longer and healthier lives. 

Living with congenital heart disease

With advancements in care and access to state-of-the-art heart imaging technology, there are now more adults living with congenital heart disease than children. An estimated 800,000 adults in the United States have grown into adulthood with congenital heart disease. This number increases by about 20,000 each year. 

Adult congenital heart disease is not uncommon. Our expert cardiologists and ACHD team help those who have been diagnosed with a heart defect at birth, or after, thrive into adulthood. It’s important to be monitored by experts in congenital heart diseases and take the necessary precautions to help manage your defect.