What are congenital heart defects (CHD)?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

A heart birth defect or a congenital heart defect is an abnormality or malformation in any part of the heart that is present at birth. Heart defects originate in the early weeks of pregnancy when the heart is forming. The human heart begins as a single tubular structure at about the fourth week of pregnancy. By the eighth week, this tube has increase in length. Twists upon itself and a wall, or septum, grows to divide the upper (atrial) and lower (ventricular) chambers into left and right sides. in addition, four valves made of tissue develop, which keep blood moving forward through the atrial and ventricular chambers, lungs, and body as the heart pumps.

Congenital heart defects are problems with the heart's structure that are present at birth and change the normal flow of blood through the heart. A heart defect can result in blood flow:

  • Slowing down
  • Going to the wrong place or in the wrong direction
  • Being blocked completely

There are many types of congenital heart defects. Some are simple, such as a hole in the septum, a narrowed valve that blocks blood flow, or a patent ductus arteriosus.

Other heart defects are more complex. They include combinations of simple defects, problems with the location of blood vessels leading to and from the heart, and more serious problems with how the heart develops or structural alterations.

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Congenital heart disease, or congenital heart defect, is a problem with your heart that is already there when you are born. These defects alter the way blood flows through the heart, making your heart not as good at pumping blood to your body. Congenital heart disease can involve structural deformities in the walls of the heart, blood vessels, or valves of the heart, which regulate blood flow between the parts of the heart. If your newborn has congenital heart disease, they may have no symptoms or they may require surgery at birth, depending on the specific problem with their heart. The good news is that more and more children with congenital heart disease are growing up to lead completely normal lives.

Ellen Charnley
Health Education Specialist

A congenital condition is a condition someone is born with. According to the Adult Congenital Heart Association, approximately one million adults and 800,000 children are living with congenital heart defects in the United States. At least 10 percent of all congenital heart defects are first found in adulthood. Congenital heart defects are not hereditary; however, the statistics show that if a parent has a congenital heart defect, there is a 3 percent chance that a child could have a defect too.

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Living Life to the Full: My Ironman Journey from open-heart surgery to an Ironman triathlon in just eight months

Ellen Charnley is a Chartered Accountant and avid Triathlete. Ellen has completed many triathlons both locally and internationally. Born in England, she and her husband, Don, have lived in London,...

Every year, approximately 44,000 babies nationwide start life with congenital heart disease, which is a flaw in the heart or blood vessels that occurs while the fetus is still in the uterus. The most common type of birth defect, congenital heart disease changes the way blood flows through the heart. The severity of the condition can range from very mild to life-threatening.

Congenital heart disease refers to a wide spectrum of disorders of the heart that are present at birth and that can affect patients in many ways. This term encompasses a range of cardiac defects from holes in the septum such as atrial septal defect (miscommunication between the right and left atrium) and ventricular septal defect (a hole in the muscle that separates the right and left ventricles) to a variety of more complex conditions including valve disease and absence of a portion of the heart (hypotrophic left heart syndrome). Congenital heart disease is often diagnosed on prenatal screening and should be assessed by a cardiologist who specializes in these occurrences.

Dr. James M. Nielsen, MD
Ophthalmologist (Eye Specialist)

Congenital heart defects (CHD) are developmental abnormalities of heart formation. As they are present at birth, the term "congenital" meaning "with birth" is appropriate. The defects are actually present well before birth in the hearts of developing fetuses. The abnormalities are quite varied in type and severity. The simplest and least dangerous can be present, but undiscovered, in adult aged individuals. An example is bicuspid aortic valve which is present in many asymptomatic adults.

More complex defects can result in missing valves, missing or severely underdeveloped heart chambers, large holes between chambers, or connection problems between the different heart segments. Frequently, many defects are found together in the same heart, resulting in complex CHD.

Critical to care of children and adults with these problems is involvement of a pediatric cardiologist—a doctor who specializes in CHD. Ultrasonography of the heart is termed "echocardiography" and is a critical test for diagnosing CHD. Determining the exact features of the CHD present is vital for prognosis and for determining what treatment is best for the child. Fortunately many congenital heart diseases are readily treated and individuals can live longer and better quality lives with treatment.

Dr. Ira A. Parness, MD
Pediatric Cardiologist

During the complicated process of embryonic and fetal development, the heart is subject to more potential defects than any other organ. These defects include:

  • Atrial Septal Defect (ASD). The wall between the heart's upper chambers has a hole in it.
  • Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD). The wall between the heart's lower chambers has a hole in it.
  • Patent ductus arteriosus (PDA). The blood vessel that normally connects the aorta and the pulmonary artery during pregnancy does not close up properly after birth.
  • Tetralogy of Fallot. The heart has a hole between the pumping chambers and obstructions within the artery leading to the lungs.
  • Coarctation of the aorta. Narrowing of a segment of the aorta, the main artery of the body.
  • Transposition of the Great Arteries (TGA). The main arteries to the body and the lungs, the aorta and the pulmonary artery, arise from the opposite (wrong) pumping chamber.
  • Hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS). The left side of the heart is so small that it is inadequate to pump to the body after birth.
Administration Specialist

A congenital heart defect is an abnormality of the heart or blood vessels that develops before the child is born and is present at birth. These defects typically form well before the first trimester of pregnancy is completed. Heart defects are the most common defects that children are born with.

Dr. Sameer A. Sayeed, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

A congenital heart defect is usually due to an abnormal communication between two parts of the heart or between the heart and lung. It usually results in abnormal direction of blood flow and can lead to damage to the heart. A congenital heart defect can also be an improperly or inadequately developed part of the heart or a completely absent part of the heart. All of these can lead to damage to the heart, various heart complications, heart failure or death.

A congenital heart defect means that part of the heart structure did not form correctly before birth. Some children have a small hole that makes a sound (called a murmur) when a healthcare provider listens with a stethoscope. Others may have silent defects. Some children have several defects and require more care or even surgery as a baby.

When the valves in the heart are narrow or don’t close properly, the forward flow of blood cells is affected, and the pumping chambers have to work harder. With some defects, there are holes between the chambers that let the blue and red blood mix when they are supposed to be separate. A small hole in the heart is considered a simple defect, but there are also some complicated ones.

Congenital heart defects (CHD) are present at birth and can affect the structure of a baby’s heart and the way it works. They can affect how blood flows through the heart and out to the rest of the body.

A congenital heart defect is something you are born with. It may be a severe heart abnormality requiring immediate lifesaving surgery, or it can be something that doesn't cause problems and may not be detected for years.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.