A heart problem present at birth may not cause symptoms until adulthood. Learn how adult congenital heart disease is treated and what complications may occur.
Congenital heart disease is one or more problems with the heart's structure that exist since birth. Congenital means that you're born with the condition. Congenital heart disease in adults and children can change the way blood flows through the heart.
There are many different types of congenital heart defects. This article focuses on congenital heart disease in adults.
Some types of congenital heart disease may be mild. But complex defects may cause life-threatening complications. However, advances in diagnosis and treatment continue to improve survival for those with congenital heart disease.
People with congenital heart disease need lifelong medical care. Treatment may include regular checkups (watchful waiting), medications or surgery. If you have adult congenital heart disease, ask your health care provider how often you need a checkup.
For some people, signs or symptoms of congenital heart disease aren't noticed until adulthood. Symptoms may return years after a congenital heart defect is treated.
Common congenital heart disease symptoms in adults include:
If you're having worrisome symptoms, such as chest pain or shortness of breath, seek emergency medical attention.
If you have signs or symptoms of congenital heart disease or were treated for a congenital heart defect as a child, make an appointment to see your health care provider.
Researchers aren't sure what causes most types of congenital heart disease. Some congenital heart diseases are passed down through families (inherited).
To understand congenital heart disease, it helps to know how the heart typically works.
Congenital heart disease can affect any of these heart structures, including the arteries, valves, chambers and the wall of tissue that separates the chambers (septum).
A typical heart has two upper and two lower chambers. The upper chambers, the right and left atria, receive incoming blood. The lower chambers, the more muscular right and left ventricles, pump blood out of the heart. The heart valves, which keep blood flowing in the right direction, are gates at the chamber openings.
Certain environmental and genetic risk factors might play a role in the development of congenital heart disease, including:
Congenital heart disease can contribute to other health concerns later in life. Complications may occur years after a congenital heart defect is treated.
Complications of congenital heart disease in adults include:
It may be possible to have a successful pregnancy with mild congenital heart disease. A care provider may tell you not to get pregnant if you have a complex congenital heart defect.
Before becoming pregnant, talk to your health care provider about the possible risks and complications. Together you can discuss and plan for any special care needed during pregnancy.
Some types of congenital heart disease occur in families (inherited). If you have or someone in your family has congenital heart disease, screening by a genetic counselor may help determine the risk of certain heart defects in future children.
To diagnose congenital heart disease in adults, your health care provider will do a physical exam and listen to your heart with a stethoscope. You will be asked questions about your symptoms and medical and family history.
Tests can be done to check the heart's health and look for other conditions that may cause similar signs and symptoms.
Tests to diagnose or confirm congenital heart disease in adults and children include:
Congenital heart disease can often be treated successfully in childhood. However, some types of congenital heart disease may not be serious enough to repair during childhood, but they may cause problems in adulthood.
Treatment of congenital heart disease in adults depends on the severity of the heart condition. Relatively minor congenital heart defects might require only occasional health checkups to make sure the condition doesn't worsen.
Other treatments for congenital heart disease in adults may include medications and surgery.
Some mild congenital heart defects can be treated with medications that help the heart work better. Medications may also be given to prevent blood clots or to control an irregular heartbeat.
Several surgeries and procedures are available to treat adults with congenital heart disease.
Adult with congenital heart disease are at risk of developing complications — even if surgery was done to repair the defect during childhood. Lifelong follow-up care is important. Ideally, a doctor trained in treating adults with congenital heart defects should manage your care.
Follow-up care may include regular health checkups and occasional bloodwork and imaging exams to screen for complications. How often you'll need to see your health care provider will depend on whether your congenital heart disease is mild or complex.
One important thing to do if you're an adult with congenital heart disease is to become educated about your condition. Topics you should become familiar with include:
If you have a congenital heart defect, make an appointment with a doctor trained in diagnosing and treating heart conditions (cardiologist) for follow-up care, even if you haven't developed complications.
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.
When you make the appointment, ask if there's anything you need to do in advance, such as avoiding food or drinks for a short period of time. Make a list of:
For congenital heart disease, questions to ask your care provider include:
Don't hesitate to ask other questions.
Your health care provider is likely to ask you questions, including: