A baby with a rapid heartbeat; a bluish tinge to the skin, lips, and nails (cyanosis); and signs of visible fatigue and fast, labored breathing when feeding could be telltale signs of congenital heart disease.

What Is Congenital Heart Disease?

Congenital heart disease or defect is an umbrella term referring to a wide range of abnormalities or irregularities about the heart. The term "congenital" means the condition is present at birth.

There are different types of congenital heart disease, ranging from simple defects with no symptoms to serious defects with life-threatening consequences.

Septal defects (a hole in the heart), coarctation of the aorta (the largest artery is abnormally narrow), pulmonary valve stenosis, and transposition of the great arteries are some known types of CHD. In some cases, a combination of these defects may be present.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CHDs are one of the leading causes of birth defect-related infant illness and death in the country, affecting nearly 1 percent, or approximately 40,000 births per year.

Experts believe that most cases of congenital heart defect occur when something messes up the baby's normal heart development while inside the mother's womb, which happens during the fifth week of pregnancy.

What Causes CHD?

The exact cause of congenital heart defect is yet to be discovered, but there are several factors that may increase a child's risk for this condition.

A mother's health during pregnancy plays a pivotal role in a child's chances of having birth defects. Drinking too much alcohol, having severe or poorly managed diabetes, contracting serious infections such as rubella (German measles), or being frequently exposed to organic solvents (harsh chemicals used in dry cleaning, paint thinners, and nail polish removers) are serious red flags, especially during the early stages of pregnancy.

Genetic conditions inherited from either one or both parents have also been linked to congenital heart disease. These include Down syndrome, Turner syndrome, and Noonan syndrome.

Can Congenital Heart Disease Be Treated?

Fortunately, as medical care and treatment have dramatically improved over the years, children with congenital heart disease can now live longer and healthier lives.

In mild cases of CHD, a heart-healthy diet and lifestyle are enough. On the contrary, children with complex types of heart defects may have to undergo a series of catheter (thin, flexible tube inserted into a vein or artery) and surgical procedures, and may be required to take prescription drugs for years.

Babies with multiple heart defects that may be too risky or difficult to repair through an open-heart surgery may require a heart transplant, although this is very rare.

Early detection is essential for the treatment of CHD as well. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology highly recommend that all pregnant women, especially those at a higher risk than the general population to give birth to a child with a heart defect, take a fetal echocardiogram in the second trimester to identify fetuses with major heart disease.

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