What are congenital heart defects?
"Congenital" means a condition is present at birth. Congenital heart defects (also called congenital heart disease, or CHD) are the most common birth defects. Infants born with a congenital heart defect have abnormal structure to their heart, which can affect the way the heart works and how blood flows through the heart to the rest of the body. Approximately one out of every 100 babies is born with a CHD.
Some forms of congenital heart disease cause little or very few problems in the health, growth and development of the infant. Other forms are more serious and require interventions like cardiac catheterization or heart surgery for the child to survive and thrive.
In decades past, most children with serious or critical CHDs did not survive. But with advancements in diagnostic technologies, research, cardiac care and surgical treatment, CHDs are being diagnosed sooner – often even before the baby is born – and children born with a CHD are living longer, healthier lives. In fact, most CHD patients are now living into adulthood. Although there are treatments for many different CHDs, there is no cure. Congenital heart disease is a lifelong disease requiring ongoing monitoring and specialized care.
At Children's Hospital Colorado, both the Colorado Fetal Care Center and the Heart Institute may be involved in diagnosis, treatment and follow up care for patients with CHDs.
Types of congenital heart defects
There are numerous heart defects, with many additional variations due to subtle differences in anatomy. Congenital heart defects range from minor, such as having a small hole in the heart, to severe, such as missing parts of the heart.
Depending on the defect, different parts of the heart may be affected, such as:
- Septum: A wall made of muscle that divides the heart into two halves. In a normal heart the atria are separated by a septum and the ventricles are also separated by a septum.
- Chambers: Four "holding areas" that pump blood in and out of the body and lungs. Each half of the heart has two chambers: the atrium and the ventricle.
- Heart valves: Four one-way "gates" (one for each chamber) meant to keep blood moving in the right direction through the heart. Each valve opens so that blood can flow into the next chamber, and then closes so it can't go backwards.
- Veins and arteries: Blood vessels that serve as the "highway system" for the body's blood supply.
The following conditions are examples of different congenital heart defects:
*Critical congenital heart defects
What is critical congenital heart disease?
Approximately one in four babies diagnosed with a heart defect has what's called critical congenital heart disease (CCHD). Infants with critical CHD face a higher risk of health complications and death if they are not diagnosed in utero (in the womb) or soon after birth. Babies who do survive are at greater risk for brain injury and developmental delays if intervention is delayed.
Learn about other cardiac conditions we treat, including fetal heart conditions and pediatric heart conditions in infancy and childhood.
What causes congenital heart disease?
Congenital heart defects occur when the heart does not develop normally during the early weeks of the mother's pregnancy. The exact reason this occurs is unknown, but research is ongoing. The following factors have been associated with CHD – meaning these may or may not play a role:
How common are congenital heart defects?
CHDs are the most common type of birth defect, affecting nearly 40,000 births in the U.S. each year, or approximately 1 in 100 babies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that more than 2 million people in the U.S. are living with a congenital heart defect.
Helpful resources for families of patients with congenital heart defects
If you'd like to learn more about congenital heart defects, visit: