Signs and Symptoms of Congenital Heart Defects

Signs and symptoms of congenital heart defects vary from mild to life threatening. More serious heart defects may be detected shortly after birth, or even before birth. Other conditions may not be noticed until later in childhood or even until adolescence.

Symptoms in infants, children, or teens depend on the type and severity of the defect and may include the following:

  • Cyanosis (bluish coloring of skin, lips, and/or nails)
  • Failure to grow or gain weight
  • Feeding problems during infancy (sweating, struggling during feedings)
  • Fatigue
  • Rapid breathing

If a child develops any of these symptoms, he or she may require further diagnostic testing.

Signs that may be detected by the child's pediatrician and can indicate a congenital heart condition include arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), heart murmur (an abnormal sound of the heart), and weak pulse. If these signs occur, the child may require additional diagnostic testing.

Complications of Congenital Heart Defects

Specific complications of congenital heart defects depend on the type and severity of the particular condition.

The following conditions can develop as complications of congenital heart defects:

  • Endocarditis (inflammation of heart tissue due to a bacterial infection) can develop any time bacteria enter the bloodstream. Before dental procedures and minor surgeries, children with certain congenital heart defects are advised to take preventative antibiotics to avoid this complication.
  • Delayed growth, learning disabilities, developmental delays
  • Cyanosis, fainting, seizures (sudden death also can occur)
  • Mental retardation due to lack of oxygen to the brain at birth
  • Structural damage to the heart chambers and major blood vessels near the heart
  • Pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs)
  • Congestive heart failure (CHF) is a condition in which the heart becomes unable to pump an adequate amount of blood through the body. A person with congestive heart failure becomes tired and short of breath easily.
  • Premature heart disease
  • Arrhythmia (irregular heart rate)
  • Stroke (brain attack)

Parents and caregivers should talk with the child's pediatrician or pediatric cardiologist about ways to reduce the risk for complications due to congenital heart conditions. For example:

  • Bring a list of questions to your medical appointment to help you remember important details.
  • Ask for instructions and explanations from the physician in writing or bring paper and pen to take notes.
  • Ask the physician about support groups and additional resources.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 18 Nov 2008

Last Modified: 08 Sep 2015