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Many congenital heart defects have few or no symptoms. A doctor may not even detect signs of a heart defect during a physical exam.
Some heart defects do have symptoms. These depend on the number and type of defects and how severe the defects are. Severe defects can cause symptoms, usually in newborn babies. These symptoms can include:
Congenital heart defects don’t cause chest pain or other painful symptoms.
Abnormal blood flow through the heart caused by a heart defect will make a certain sound. Your doctor can hear this sound, called a heart murmur, with a stethoscope. However, not all murmurs are a sign of a congenital heart defect. Many healthy children have heart murmurs.
Normal growth and development depend on a normal workload for the heart and normal flow of oxygen-rich blood to all parts of the body. Babies with congenital heart defects may have cyanosis or tire easily when feeding. Sometimes they have both problems. As a result, they may not gain weight or grow as they should.
Older children may get tired easily or short of breath during exercise or activity. Many types of congenital heart defects cause the heart to work harder than it should. In severe defects, this can lead to heart failure, a condition in which the heart can’t pump blood strongly throughout the body. Symptoms of heart failure include:
Serious congenital heart defects are generally identified during pregnancy or soon after birth. Less severe defects aren’t diagnosed until children are older. Minor defects often have no symptoms and are diagnosed based on results from a physical exam and special tests done for another reason.
Doctors who specialize in the care of babies and children who have heart problems are called pediatric cardiologists. Other specialists who treat heart defects in children include cardiac surgeons (doctors who repair heart defects using surgery).
During a physical exam, the doctor:
Tests Commonly Used To Diagnosis Congenital Heart Defects
This test, which is harmless and painless, uses sound waves to create a moving picture of your child’s heart. During an echocardiogram, reflected sound waves show the structure of the heart. The test allows the doctor to clearly see any problem with the way the heart is formed or the way it’s working.
An echocardiogram is an important test for both diagnosing a heart problem and following the problem over time. In children with congenital heart defects, an echocardiogram will outline the problems with the heart’s structure and show how the heart is reacting to these problems. The echocardiogram will help your child’s cardiologist decide if and when treatment is needed.
During pregnancy, if your doctor suspects that your baby has a congenital heart defect, a special test called a fetal echocardiogram can be done. This test uses sound waves to create a picture of the baby's heart while the baby is still in the womb. The test is usually done during the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy. If your child is diagnosed with a congenital heart defect before birth, your doctor can plan treatment before the baby is born.
An EKG detects and records the electrical activity of the heart. An EKG shows how fast the heart is beating and whether the heart’s rhythm is steady or irregular. It can also detect if one of the heart’s chambers is enlarged, which can help diagnose a heart problem.
Chest X Ray
A chest x ray takes a picture of the heart and lungs. It can show whether the heart is enlarged or whether the lungs have extra blood or fluid, which can be a sign of heart failure.
Pulse oximetry shows how much oxygen is in the blood. A sensor is placed on the child’s fingertip or toe (like an adhesive bandage). The sensor is attached to a small computer unit, which displays a number that indicates how much oxygen is in the blood.
During cardiac catheterization, a thin, flexible tube called a catheter is passed through a vein in the arm, groin (upper thigh), or neck to reach the heart. A dye that can be seen on an x ray is injected through the catheter into a blood vessel or a chamber of the heart. This allows the doctor to see the flow of blood through the heart and blood vessels.
Cardiac catheterization also can be used to measure the pressure inside the heart and blood vessels and to determine whether blood is mixing between the two sides of the heart. It’s also used to repair some heart defects.