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Facts About Congenital Heart Disease (CHD)

  • Congenital heart disease is the MOST common birth defect affecting 1 in 100 babies born in the United States.
  • Of those affected, approximately 1 in 4 infants have critical congenital heart disease (heart defects requiring cardiac surgery within the first year of life).
  • About 25% of infants with CHD have physical, developmental, or cognitive disorders.
  • Congenital heart defects are 60 times more prevalent than childhood cancer.
  • In the U.S., twice as many children die each year from congenital heart defects than all of the childhood cancers combined! However, funding for cancer research is 5 times higher.
  • There are approximately 1 million children and 1.4 million adults with congenital heart disease living today.

Congenital Heart Defects

Congenital heart defects occur when parts of the heart do not form or form improperly during fetal development. The heart of a fetus is fully formed and beating by 3 weeks of pregnancy, long before a woman even knows she is pregnant!

Congenital heart defects range from a small hole in between the inner walls of the heart to those where essentially half the heart did not form. And we still have little explanation for why they occur.

Causes of Congenital Heart Defects

Some known causes of congenital heart defects include:

  • Maternal diabetes, obesity, rubella, phenylketonuria (PKU)
  • Genetic syndromes (Down Syndrome, Turner Syndrome, Noonan Syndrome, and others)
  • Maternal tobacco, EtOH (alcohol), and illicit drug use
  • Certain medicines taken during pregnancy (ie. lithium, Retin-A®, Zoloft®)

Congenital heart disease is often times a lifelong medical condition. There are some defects that correct on their own with time and growth. But there are also many heart defects that will require multiple surgeries/interventions and/or treatment with medicine lifelong.

Congenital Heart Disease in Children: What can a pediatric cardiologist do?

I am often asked to describe what I do as a pediatric cardiologist.

In the most simplest of terms, I am a really fancy plumber!

I study the heart with multiple tools (stethoscope, ultrasound, MRI, CT, angiography) and figure out how the surgeon can “re-connect the plumbing” so that the blue blood (deoxygenated) gets to the lungs and the red blood (oxygenated) gets to the body, all while sometimes using medicines to keep the heart beating as strong and efficiently as it can until those repairs can be made.

What can you do about congenital heart disease?

#1 – Talk to your obstetrician.

If you are pregnant and have a history of a congenital heart defect or have a first degree relative who had/has one (mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter), tell your obstetrician because you should undergo additional ultrasound screening of your baby’s heart called a fetal echocardiogram (ultrasound dedicated to the investigation of the fetus’ heart).

#2 – Speak with your pediatrician.

For infants, talk to your health care provider if you notice:

  • poor feeding (such as: not waking for feedings, panting during feeds, sweating with feeds)
  • “blue-ness” of the mouth (particularly the gums and tongue)
  • constant, fast breathing
  • difficulty gaining weight

It is SO important to make sure you are getting your children a complete physical annually. This will allow your pediatrician to listen for the development of heart murmurs and check your child’s blood pressure and oxygen level to determine whether further evaluation by a pediatric cardiologist is warranted.

Learn more about pediatric cardiology at WakeMed.

About Jennifer Whitham, MD

Dr. Jennifer Whitham is a pediatric cardiologist at WakeMed with clinical interests in congenital heart disease, fetal cardiology, and functional cardiac assessment. She enjoys helping children with heart disease survive, thrive and live up to their fullest potential.

Request an appointment with Dr. Whitham today.

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Jennifer Whitham MD, MSCR