Skip to main content

Health library

What are congenital heart defects?

Mild or severe heart troubles can develop before a baby is even born. Treatment can usually manage or correct these problems.

Congenital heart defects are problems in the heart that are present at birth. The defect may be so slight that no symptoms appear for years. Other times, the defect is severe enough to threaten the baby's life immediately.

According to March of Dimes, about 40,000 babies are born with congenital heart defects each year in the United States.

What are the causes?

In most cases doctors don't know exactly what causes the heart to develop abnormally. Possible causes include:

  • Contracting rubella (German measles) in the first three months of pregnancy.
  • Drinking alcohol during pregnancy.
  • Smoking before or during pregnancy.
  • Using medications during pregnancy, such as the acne medicine isotretinoin and some anti-seizure drugs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Genetics.

Diagnosis and treatment

A special test that uses sound waves can accurately detect many heart defects in a fetus. If certain problems—such as a heart that beats too fast or too slowly—are diagnosed before birth, medicines may be able to treat the problem before the heart starts to fail.

In cases where the defect can't be treated before birth, knowing that it exists enables doctors to be ready to give the baby treatment as soon as he or she is born.

Generally speaking, heart defects can be corrected or at least helped by surgery, medicine or devices such as artificial valves and pacemakers, according to March of Dimes.

After treatment

Parents of children with heart defects and adults with repaired heart defects should talk with their doctor about taking antibiotics before dental procedures and other types of surgery in order to prevent infection.

Reviewed 9/3/2021

Related stories