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Congenital Heart Defects

Learning a child may have congenital heart defect (also referred to as congenital heart disease) is scary, and figuring out where that child will receive treatment for his or her condition can be one of the biggest decisions a parent can make. The experts at the CHOC Children’s Heart Institute understand these anxieties and work with pediatric patients and their families to diagnose, treat and manage congenital heart disease.

The Right Care for Fragile Hearts

What We Treat

Our Heart Institute experts treat a full spectrum of congenital heart defects including but not limited to:

Learn more about the factors that cause congenital heart disease.

Expert Diagnosis Right From the Start

Early diagnosis and treatment is very important for the ongoing management of many forms of congenital heart disease. In fact, the experts at the Heart Institute are so dedicated to finding congenital heart defects early that they work with expectant families to diagnose and plan for treating suspected heart defects before a baby is even born.

Depending upon a child’s age and the suspected defect, diagnoses can be made using:

State-of-the-art Treatments

Congenital heart disease is complex and the extent of the disease and the impact it has on a child’s life varies. Some forms of congenital heart disease may only need ongoing medical management, while others may require treatment using cardiac catheterization or surgery. No matter the form of treatment needed, our expert team of cardiologists, nurses and other specialists are dedicated to providing the very best in patient- and family-centered care and include the child’s family in the decision-making process every step of the way.

Our cardiologists provide management of congenital heart problems throughout a child’s life and into adulthood.

Knowledge is the Best Medicine

Pediatric Cardiology
Dr. Cleary discusses modern developments in pediatric cardiology.


CVICU Provides Special Post-Procedure Care
Patients who have undergone complex, cardiovascular procedures at the CHOC Children’s Heart Institute require specialized care and attention.


Pediatric Cardiac Catheritization
Dr. Berdjis, pediatric cardiologist, explains about pediatric cardiac catheritization, a comon procedure that helps diagnosis heart problems in children.


Frequently Asked Questions About Congenital Heart Defects

Parents naturally have a lot of worries, and those worries often start as soon as they find out a new baby is on the way. One worry that many parents share is whether or not their child will be healthy. Whether you are newly pregnant or have recently found out your child may suffer from congenital heart defect, it is important to understand what the defect is and how it occurs in children.

A congenital heart defect, also referred to as congenital heart disease or CHD, is a heart problem that is present at birth and is caused by an error in the development of the heart during fetal development.

In most cases when a baby is born with a congenital heart defect, there is no known reason for the heart to have formed incorrectly. Scientists know that some types of congenital heart defects can be related to an abnormality of an infant's chromosomes, single gene defects or environmental factors. Most cases are considered “multifactorial inheritance” because there is no identifiable cause for the heart defect.

Multifactorial inheritance means that "many factors" (multifactorial) are involved in causing a birth defect. The factors are usually both genetic and environmental, which means a combination of genes from both parents, in addition to unknown environmental factors, produce the trait or condition.

Many mothers of babies born with a congenital heart defect may blame themselves for their child's illness. It is important to remember that the cause of most congenital heart defects are not known. However, some types of congenital heart defects are known to occur more often when the mother comes in contact with certain substances during the first few weeks of pregnancy while the baby's heart is developing. Some maternal illnesses and medications taken for these illnesses have been shown to affect the heart's development. Other illnesses or medications seem to have no impact on the baby's heart. Because of this, it is very important for women to speak with their doctor or obstetrician about the medications they take as soon as they find out they may be pregnant or when they are thinking about becoming pregnant.

Women who have seizure disorders and need to take antiseizure medications may have a higher risk for having a child with a congenital heart defect, as do women who take lithium to treat depression. Mothers who have phenylketonuria (PKU) who do not adhere to the special diet necessary to manage the disease during pregnancy have a higher risk of having a child with a congenital heart defect. Also, women with insulin-dependent diabetes (particularly if the diabetes is not well-controlled) or lupus may have a higher risk of having a child with heart defects. Counseling is very important for women with these chronic illnesses before becoming pregnant, so that they understand the risks involved.

Rubella, a virus that most people in the United States were immunized against when they received the MMR vaccine, is known to cause birth defects. A woman who has never had rubella nor been vaccinated against the disease should consult her health care provider before becoming pregnant. A mother who contracts rubella during her pregnancy has a very significant chance of having a baby with birth defects.

In the general population, about 1 percent of all children are born with a congenital heart defect. However, the risk goes up when either parent has a CHD or when another sibling was born with a CHD.

Some heart defects are considered to have autosomal-dominant inheritance, meaning that a parent with the defect has a 50 percent chance, with each pregnancy, to have a child with the same heart defect, and males and females are equally affected. Similarly, there is also a 50 percent chance that an offspring will not be affected.

Families with a history of congenital heart defects can meet with a genetic counselor or genetic specialist before becoming pregnant to talk about the risks of passing on the defect. In families with CHD either in the parents or offspring, fetal echocardiography can be performed in the second trimester, at about 18 to 22 weeks of pregnancy, to determine the presence of major heart defects in the fetus.

Approximately 30 percent of children with abnormal chromosomes that result in genetic syndromes, like Down syndrome, are born with a congenital heart defect. Chromosomes are the structures in the body’s cells that contain genes. Genes code traits like eye color and blood type. Usually there are 46 chromosomes in each cell of the body. Having too many or too few chromosomes results in health problems and birth defects. Structural defects of the chromosomes, where a piece of the chromosome is missing or duplicated, also causes health problems.

There are a number of chromosome abnormalities associated with congenital heart defects. Some of these include the following:

  • Down syndrome (trisomy 21)
  • Trisomy 18 and trisomy 13
  • Turner's syndrome
  • Cri du chat syndrome
  • Wolf-Hirshhorn syndrome
  • DiGeorge syndrome (22q11).

Chromosome analysis can be performed from a small blood sample to rule out the presence of a chromosome abnormality in a child with a congenital heart defect.

There are an estimated 70,000 genes contained on the 46 chromosomes in each cell of the body. Genes come in pairs, one that is inherited from the mother, the other from the father. Genes not only compose our individual traits, but also may be responsible for health problems when gene alterations (mutations) are present. When a gene is mutated, a number of health problems may occur in a person, due to the single underlying genetic mutation. Several health problems with one genetic cause are often referred to as a syndrome. Some of the genetic syndromes associated with a higher incidence of heart defects include, but are not limited to:

  • Marfan syndrome
  • Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome
  • Ellis-van Creveld
  • Holt-Oram syndrome
  • Noonan syndrome.

Other genetic syndromes that are not due to a single gene defect, but are associated with CHD, include Goldenhar syndrome (hemifacial microsomia), William's syndrome and the VACTERL association (tracheal and esophageal malformations associated with vertebral, anorectal, cardiac, renal, radial and limb abnormalities).

When a child is born with a congenital heart defect, if there is a suspicion that the child has some type of genetic syndrome, a doctor who specializes in genetics (called a clinical geneticist) may be asked to evaluate the child.

If a child has been diagnosed with a chromosomal or other genetic abnormality, genetic counseling is helpful to determine the risk for heart defects occurring in future children.

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UC Irvine

CHOC Children's is affiliated with the UC Irvine School of Medicine