What is congenital heart disease?

Congenital means present at birth. Congenital heart disease (CHD) means a heart condition that a baby is born with. These conditions can affect the heart’s structure, how it works, or both.

There are about 35 types of known congenital heart defects. A number of these occur in combination. Little is known about the cause of most congenital heart defects. The amazing progress over the past 50 years in diagnosis, surgery, and other interventions has vastly improved survival.

How common is congenital heart disease?

Congenital heart defects are the most common birth defect. Each year, about 1 out of every 100 babies born has a heart defect. More than half of all babies born with CHD will require surgery in order to survive; 21% of children requiring cardiac surgery are under 1 month old, and 40% of children requiring cardiac surgery are under 1 year old. Across Canada, there is an estimated 280,000 children and adults with CHD and the number is increasing every year.

How is congenital heart disease diagnosed?

CHDs can be discovered during pregnancy, after birth, or in adulthood. Early detection is of critical importance and can increase survival rates. During a pregnant woman’s 20-week anatomy scan, doctors are sometimes able to detect a CHD.

If you are pregnant, ask your doctor these important questions:

  • Is the heart rate normal?
  • Do you look at the arteries?
  • Are the heart and stomach in the correct position?
  • Is the heart function normal?
  • Do you see four chambers?

Tests used to diagnose CHD after a baby has been born include:

  • Pulse oximetry screening in newborns
  • Cardiac catheterization
  • Chest X-ray
  • Echocardiogram
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)
  • Magnetic resonance imaging
  • (Cardiac CT)

What are some symptoms of congenital heart disease?

Some symptoms of CHD include:

  • A heart murmur
  • Fast breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Poor feeding, especially in infants
  • Poor weight gain in infants
  • Fatigue during exercise or activity

BC Children’s Hospital

Every year, over 500 families in BC receive the news that their child has a CHD. The vast majority of children in BC are treated at BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver. There are six cardiologists and two cardiac surgeons and an entire team of nurses, technicians, and other specialists who oversee the care and management of these children.

In 2013, BC Children’s Hospital established a heart transplant program, which means that children needing a heart transplant can receive this procedure at BC Children’s Hospital. Previously, children needing a heart transplant would have to go to another hospital in Canada.

More information

To learn about each unique CHD please visit AboutKidsHealth. If your child has been diagnosed with a CHD, please visit our Resources section. For information about CHD in adults please visit the Canadian Congenital Heart Alliance.