Complications of Down Syndrome

Children with Down syndrome are susceptible to a number of medical issues, including the following:

  • Heart defects. Approximately 50 percent of children with Down syndrome have serious heart problems. Some can be treated with medication, but surgery is often necessary.
  • Intestinal abnormalities. Approximately 10 percent of babies born with Down syndrome have malformed intestines or intestinal blockages that may require surgery. Digestive disorders, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and celiac disease (caused by an inability to digest gluten, which is a protein found in wheat), are more common in children with Down syndrome.
  • Thyroid problems. Approximately 15 percent of people with Down syndrome have hypothyroidism (i.e., an under-active thyroid).
  • Leukemia. Children with Down syndrome are 15 to 20 times more likely to develop cancer of blood-forming cells.
  • Hearing loss. Children with Down syndrome often have ears that are malformed, which may cause nerve problems and increase the risk for fluid in the middle ear, leading to hearing loss.
  • Vision problems. Near- or far-sightedness, amblyopia (lazy eye), and a higher risk for developing cataracts are associated with Down syndrome.
  • Respiratory problems. Down syndrome increases the risk for pulmonary hypertension, which is a serious condition characterized by high blood pressure in the lungs and other respiratory problems.
  • Alzheimer's disease. People who have Down syndrome may develop symptoms (e.g., dementia) before the age of 40.
  • Abnormal immune system. Children with Down syndrome are more susceptible to infectious diseases (e.g., caused by viruses or bacteria) and tend to experience colds, bronchitis, and pneumonia more often than other children.

Seizure disorders, obesity, and skeletal (bone) problems also are more common in children who have Down syndrome.

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

Published: 27 Aug 2008

Last Modified: 14 Sep 2015