Baby holding mothers hands in a heart shape

What is a congenital heart condition?

Congenital means ‘from birth’. A congenital heart condition is an abnormality of the heart that has been present from birth. A congenital heart condition is sometimes also called ‘congenital heart disease’ or ‘congenital heart defect’.

How common are these conditions?

At least 1 out of every 125 babies born each year have a heart condition. About half of these babies have a minor condition and will not need any treatment but the rest will need medical treatment or surgery.

What caused the condition?

In most cases the cause is unknown, although some conditions are found to be genetic. Some abnormalities are as a result of the mother’s health during pregnancy, ie diabetes or systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), an auto immune disease.

Drugs taken in pregnancy – such as some of those prescribed for epilepsy and also illegal drugs or alcohol – are known to cause certain heart conditions. Smoking is also thought to be a factor. This does not mean that those suffering from diabetes or epilepsy cannot have healthy children, they just need careful attention during their pregnancies.

How is a congenital heart condition discovered?

Many congenital heart conditions are picked up when the mother has a routine ultrasound scan during pregnancy. If there is a suspicion that there may be something wrong with the developing baby’s heart, the doctors will recommend the woman has a foetal echocardiogram at about 16-20 weeks of pregnancy. This shows the baby’s heart in more detail than in the ultrasound scan. If the woman has already had a baby born with a heart condition, or if she or her partner was born with a heart condition, the doctors will advise having a foetal echocardiogram because of the slightly increased risk.

Some congenital heart conditions are not discovered until after birth. Most conditions are discovered in early life and treated, if necessary. However, some are not discovered until adulthood.

What happens after a congenital heart condition is found?

A cardiologist will carry out a full medical examination, arrange for an electrocardiogram (ECG), a chest x-ray, an echocardiograrn and possibly blood tests. He will then be in a position to discuss with the patient what sort of treatment, if any, is required.

Some people may need more than one heart operation. If an artificial valve or plastic tube is inserted in the heart as a child, this will need replacing as they outgrow it. This can occur several times. Sometimes just ageing and growth can reduce the effectiveness of the first surgery.

Regular follow-up is needed, even if the patient has had successful surgery and is leading a very normal life, because changes may occur within the heart. Cardiac surgery is relatively new and nobody knows what long-term effects there may be and it is important, for future generations, that records are kept.