What Is Congenital Heart Disease?

Every February, there is a week to celebrate congenital heart disease awareness. Congenital heart disease is one or more issues with the heart structure that have existed since you were born. This disease, also named congenital heart defect, can change the way the blood goes through your heart. While some defects don’t cause any problems, some can be life-threatening. Advances in both diagnosis and treatment have made it so babies born with congenital heart defects survive into adulthood. Sometimes, the symptoms don’t even show until you are an adult. There are many different types of congenital heart defects that can occur. 


Some defects don’t cause any symptoms or signs. For some, the symptoms don’t happen until later on in life. Symptoms may also show up years after you have had treatment for the heart defect. Some common symptoms include abnormal heart rhythms, a bluish tint on the skin, tiring quickly upon exerting, swelling of organs or body tissues, and shortness of breath. 

It’s important to get emergency medical attention if there are worrisome symptoms, such as shortness of breath or chest pain. 


Researchers and doctors aren’t sure what causes most types of congenital heart disease. Some can be passed down through families. Congenital heart disease can affect any part of the heart structure, including the chambers, valves, arteries, and septum. 

Risk Factors of Congenital Heart Disease

There are some genetic risk factors and certain environmental factors that could play a role in the development. Since some conditions run in families, genes play a role. For example, those who are born with Down syndrome often also have heart defects. Genetic testing is available to detect Down syndrome and other disorders during pregnancy. Having rubella during pregnancy can also affect the way a baby’s heart develops. Having diabetes during pregnancy can also affect heart development, but gestational diabetes typically doesn’t increase the risk. Taking some medications while pregnant may also cause some birth defects, such as congenital heart disease. Consuming alcohol or smoking while pregnant can also contribute to the risk of heart defects for babies. 


Unfortunately, complications can happen years after you get treatment for congenital heart defects. Irregular heartbeats, also known as arrhythmias, are common. Your heart may beat irregularly, too slow, or too fast. Severe arrhythmias can cause sudden cardiac death or stroke. Scar tissue from any previous heart surgeries can increase the risk of this complication. Other complications can include heart infection, stroke, or pulmonary hypertension. Congestive heart failure is when the heart can’t pump enough blood. Some types of congenital heart disease lead to congestive heart failure. 

Pregnancy and Congenital Heart Disease

Women who have mild congenital heart defects can go on to have a successful pregnancy. However, women with certain types may be advised to avoid pregnancy. It’s always best to speak with your doctor about possible risks and complications. Both women and men with congenital heart disease are also at risk of passing it to their children. Genetic screening or counseling can be useful for those who want to conceive children.