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Information on Congenital Heart Defects

Among heart defects that are the most common for newborns--even though in some times they don't show up for years, perhaps until adulthood--are congenital heart defects.  It's estimated that one of about 125 to 150 babies are born with some kind of heart related problem.  This represents about 32,000 children born each year with a defect.  Indeed, they are the leading cause of death among babies whose deaths are related to some kind of birth defect. 

Let's get our terminology straight.  A congenital heart defect refers to a structural heart problem that has been there since the birth of the child. It can be either caused by the environment or by heredity.  A heart defect could disrupt the blood's regular flow through the heart and even cause it to slow down.  The defect could force the blood to travel in the wrong direction or completely block its flow.

To understand the true nature of a congenital heart defect, let's examine what the heart does.  The heart is the muscle responsible for pumping blood throughout the body.  There are four sections in the heart known as chambers. Two chambers are found on the right side, and two on the left.  The bigger chambers sit toward the front of the heart, with the smaller chambers near the back. Each of these four chambers has an opening that allows blood to flow one way:  Two flow out, two flow in.  The heart's right side pumps blood through arteries, into the lungs. In the lungs, the blood gains oxygen.  The blood then goes back to the heart, this time to the left side, via the veins. It goes through the aorta and then back out to the rest of the body.  Blood that is used by the body turns dark and then makes its way back to the heart, and the process starts over again.

Heart defects interfere with this natural process. A defect is caused by numerous environmental and genetic factors--although it's normally difficult or impossible to tell the true cause.  Environmental factors include:

  • Some medications.  These include lithium (which some people use for bipolar disorder), Accutane (an acne medicine), and some medicines used to treat seizures.
  • Alcohol.  Drinking alcohol causes many potential problems with a pregnancy, and heart disease is one of them. Another is fetal alcohol syndrome.
  • Viral infections.  If a woman gets German Measles within her first three months of being pregnant, her chance of having a baby with a heart defect rises.
  • Smoking.  A 2006 edition of "HealthDay News" cited a study that points to smoking during early pregnancy as a cause of congenital heart defects.  They are, in fact, up to 60 percent ore likely to have  a baby with such a defect. Further, even second-hand smoke increases the risk to the child.
  • Cocaine.  Various studies have suggested a link between cocaine use and heart defects in babies.
  • Chronic illnesses in the mother.  Maternal problems such as diabetes, Vitamin B deficiency and phenylketonuria might increase the risk of heart defects in the child.

Genetic factors that could increase the risk include

  • Heredity.
  • Mutations.
  • Other birth defects.

If any of these three have been present in the immediate family, then this might suggest an increased risk for the unborn child.

In some cases, heart defects in the child can be detected even before birth. Usually this is done with a special sonograph called a fetal echocardiograph.  Using this method, sound waves are sent into the mother's body and create a picture of the unborn child's heart.  Doctors can then use this information to diagnose the heart's condition and devise a plan for treating any problems.

If the baby has already been born, there are some indicators that will tell you there might be a problem with the heart. here are the signs that you should look for, that might indicate the presence of a congenital heart defect:

  • A murmur.
  • The skin, fingernails or lips have a slight blue tint.
  • The baby seems to tire quickly during nursing.
  • The baby breathes in short, fast breaths.
  • The baby does not seem to be gaining weight like he / she should.

If these or other symptoms cause you to suspect a heart defect in the baby, the good news is that there are now many ways to treat the condition. Some of these include surgery, artificial valves, pacemakers, catheters, or in extreme cases, heart transplants.  Almost a million children in the U.S. have survived into adulthood with congenital heart defects because of these many treatment methods.

For more information, contact the March of Dimes website, http://www.marchofdimes.com.

Video: Congenital Heart Disease Overview

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