Congenital Heart Disease FAQ

What is congenital heart disease?

Congenital heart disease simply means that a baby is born with some type of abnormality of the heart. There is a wide variety of different types of congenital heart disease; ranging from some forms that can be very serious and require urgent treatment in the newborn period to minor problems that may resolve on their own.

What causes congenital and acquired heart disease?

Research continues, but in most cases the cause of congenital heart disease still cannot be identified. Genetic, environmental factors and lifestyle habits can all be involved. Viral infections, such as German measles, can be the cause as well as the mother’s excessive use of alcohol or illegal drugs while pregnant. The mother’s exposure to certain anticonvulsant and dermatologic drugs during pregnancy can also be the source. Genetic conditions such as Down’s syndrome can affect multiple organs and be the cause of congenital heart disease.

How can you tell if your child has congenital heart disease?

In general the symptoms of congenital heart disease include:

Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing
Cyanosis, (bluish discoloration of the skin)
Heart murmur
Respiratory infections that recur excessively
Stunted growth
Limbs and muscles that are underdeveloped
Slow growth
Susceptibility to pneumonia
Chest pain
Dizziness or fainting
Congestive heart failure
Sometimes there are no symptoms

How common is congenital heart disease?

In the United States, nearly one of every 100 babies is born with some form of heart defect, making congenital heart the single most common form of birth defect.

What is pediatric cardiology?

Pediatric Cardiology deals with heart problems in babies (including unborn babies), children and adolescents, including structural, functional, and rhythm (heartbeat) problems. Of all heart problems in children, congenital heart defects (those present at birth) are the most common, afflicting some 30-35,000 children each year in the United States. Because congenital heart disease requires special expertise for diagnosis and treatment, “pediatric” cardiology may extend to adults with congenital heart disease.

What is a heart murmur?

A heart murmur simply means that we hear an extra sound when we listen to the heart. There are many types of heart murmurs. Most structural heart abnormalities cause specific types of murmurs. However, not every murmur is a sign of a heart problem, especially in children. A heart murmur can be a completely normal sound.

What tests might my child need if seen by a specialist in pediatric cardiology?

Depending on the particular problem, sometimes a simple detailed history and physical exam is enough to rule out heart problems. However, a variety of routine tests may be necessary including an electrocardiogram, echocardiogram and /or chest X-ray. More specialized tests are done including exercise testing, 24 hour recording of the heart beat, MRI and / or cardiac catheterization.

What is an echocardiogram?

An echocardiogram is a painless, non-invasive test that uses ultrasound (sound waves) to visualize the structure and function of the heart.

What is cardiac catheterization?

Cardiac catheterization is an invasive test in which a specially trained cardiologist places thin, flexible tubes (catheters) through the blood vessels and manipulates them inside the heart. This is done using special x-ray equipment. The catheters allow cardiologists to obtain information about pressures in the heart and blood vessels, blood oxygen levels, and blood flows.

Can heart problems be detected in my unborn baby?

For women with certain risks or problems detected by their obstetrician, special fetal echocardiograms can be performed to evaluate the baby’s heart while in the womb. Your obstetrician can advise you as to whether of not a fetal echocardiogram might be necessary.

Can “minimally invasive” heart surgery be performed on children?

Our pediatric cardiac surgeons at NYUMC are doing more and more less invasive heart surgery in children. In many cases, open-heart surgery is being safely and successfully performed in children through a very small incision in the chest. These approaches help produce faster recovery and a very small scar. Whether or not these techniques can be used depend on the specific problems of the child.

Are there other types of heart problems that my child can develop, even if he/she was not born with a congenital heart defect?

There are many different types of acquired heart disease that can affect children. Most of these are related to inflammatory diseases such as acute rheumatic fever, Kawasaki disease, or myocarditis (a viral infection). However, these conditions are rare and if suspected by your pediatrician, they may request consultation from a Pediatric Cardiologist. Sometimes children can develop disorders of the heartbeat (arrhythmias) that can cause palpitations or a sensation of an abnormal heartbeat. Your doctor may want to refer your child to a Pediatric Cardiologist if an arrhythmia is suspected.