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Congenital Heart Defects: Complications

Topic Overview

Most children and adults who have corrected congenital heart defects lead healthy 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. Most heart murmurs are harmless ("innocent"). But sometimes a heart murmur is abnormal and is a sign of a heart problem. During exams, the doctor may check for a murmur that could be a sign of a problem.

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. If your child is at high risk, he or she 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.

Other problems

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

  • Slowed growth and smaller-than-average adult height and weight.
  • Developmental delays or disabilities. The doctor will track your child's development over time and may do screening tests. It's also good for you to learn what milestones are expected for children at each age. This can help you spot problems early or feel better about how your child is doing.
  • 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
John Pope, MD - Pediatrics
Larry A. Latson, MD - Pediatric Cardiology
Last Revised September 6, 2013

Last Revised: September 6, 2013

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