What are congenital heart defects?

A congenital heart defect is a malformation of the heart or large blood vessels with a genetic origin (it is transmitted in the genes) and so is present in the foetus and in newborns. Some congenital heart defects show themselves clinically at later ages (months or years later). The children are born with a heart which lacks a part or has a part incomplete or has holes in the walls between its chambers or they are narrow or its valves leak or the blood vessels are narrow.

There are many types of congenital heart defects, from those which produce a mild risk to the child’s health to those of greater risk which need immediate surgery.

Heart defects are the most common congenital pathology in Spain, affecting eight in every thousand children born, which means 4,000 new cases each year. The majority of these heart defects are mild and only require periodic heart checkups. Other heart defects need therapeutic interventions by means of catheterization or surgery. The most severe heart defects need successive operations accompanied by long periods in hospital, as well as regular checkups, which continue in some cases until those affected are adults.

We do not yet know what causes congenital heart defects, although there are risk factors such as severe illnesses or consumption of drugs during pregnancy, family histories, chromosomal alterations in the child or the parents’ ages.
Text reviewed by: Dr. Fernando Villagrá, Head of the Children’s Heart Surgery Department at the Hospital Universitario de La Paz (Madrid, Spain).