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Congenital Heart Defects: Complications

Topic Overview

Most children and adults who have corrected congenital heart defects lead normal lives. But complications sometimes develop.

These complications may start when the child is very young, or they may start in adulthood.

Heart problems

Heart failure. This is a major complication of congenital heart defects. Heart failure may develop many years after the defect is diagnosed. It can cause a variety of symptoms, such as severe difficulty breathing or irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias).

Heart murmur. Many people with congenital heart defects have a humming sound (heart murmur) that can be heard with a stethoscope even after the heart defect is repaired. Some murmurs are a sign of a heart problem, but most heart murmurs are harmless and often are outgrown (sometimes called "innocent" heart murmurs). Children with congenital heart defects need to have any murmur regularly checked by a doctor.

Heart rate and rhythm problems. These heart problems can happen in children and adults who have congenital heart defects. There are many types of rate and rhythm problems that can happen. They can be irregular rhythms, such as atrial fibrillation. Or they can be a fast heart rate, such as a type of tachycardia.

Heart valve problem. If a child had a heart valve replacement, the child may need another replacement surgery when he or she gets older. Abnormally shaped heart valves, in particular, can lead to complications such as endocarditis or narrowed or leaky heart valves.

Endocarditis. A congenital heart defect can raise the risk of an infection in the heart called endocarditis. To prevent this infection, your child needs to take excellent care of his or her teeth and watch for signs of skin infections. Your child might take antibiotics before having certain dental and surgical procedures that could put bacteria or fungi into your child's blood. The antibiotics lower the risk of getting endocarditis.

Physical problems

A heart defect might cause a child to not grow normally. Physical complications include:

  • Slowed growth and smaller-than-average adult height and weight.
  • Clubbing, a condition in which the ends of the fingers and toes swell and the nails bulge outward.
  • Polycythemia, which is an abnormal increase in the number of red blood cells. This may increase a person's risk for blood clots that can cause heart attacks or strokes.
  • Problems with the brain and nerves. An example of this is infection in the brain. This can happen as a result of bacteria in the blood that gets into the brain tissue.
  • An increased risk of blood clots.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer John Pope, MD - Pediatrics
Specialist Medical Reviewer Larry A. Latson, MD - Pediatric Cardiology
Last Revised October 11, 2011

Last Revised: October 11, 2011

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