Children's Hospital Colorado

Congenital Heart Defects (CHD)

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What are congenital heart defects?

"Congenital" means a condition is present at birth. Congenital heart defects (also called congenital heart disease, or CHD) are the most common birth defects. Infants born with a congenital heart defect have abnormal structure to their heart, which can affect the way the heart works and how blood flows through the heart to the rest of the body. Approximately 1 out of every 100 babies is born with a CHD.

Some forms of congenital heart disease cause little or very few problems in the health, growth and development of the infant. Other forms are more serious and require interventions like cardiac catheterization or heart surgery for the child to survive and thrive.

In decades past, most children with serious or critical CHDs did not survive. But with advancements in diagnostic technologies, research, cardiac care and surgical treatment, CHDs are being diagnosed sooner – often even before the baby is born – and children born with a CHD are living longer, healthier lives. In fact, most CHD patients are now living into adulthood, meaning they have adult congenital heart disease (ACHD). Although there are treatments for many different CHDs, there is no cure. Congenital heart disease is a lifelong disease requiring ongoing monitoring and specialized care.

At Children's Hospital Colorado, both our Colorado Fetal Care Center and Heart Institute may be involved in diagnosis, treatment and follow up care for patients with CHDs.

Types of congenital heart defects (CHDs)

There are numerous heart defects, with many additional variations due to subtle differences in anatomy. Congenital heart defects range from minor, such as having a small hole in the heart, to severe, such as missing parts of the heart.

Depending on the defect, different parts of the heart may be affected, such as:

  • Septum: A wall made of muscle that divides the heart into two halves. In a normal heart the atria (upper chambers where blood enters the ventricles) and ventricles (lower chambers that pump blood to the circulatory system) are separated by a septum and the ventricles.
  • Chambers: Four "holding areas" that pump blood in and out of the body and lungs. Each half of the heart has two chambers: the atrium and the ventricle.
  • Heart valves: Four one-way "gates" (one for each chamber) meant to keep blood moving in the right direction through the heart. Each valve opens so that blood can flow into the next chamber, and then closes so it can't go backwards.
  • Veins and arteries: Blood vessels that serve as the "highway system" for the body's blood supply.

The following conditions are examples of different congenital heart defects:

* Critical congenital heart defects

What is critical congenital heart disease?

Approximately one in four babies diagnosed with a heart defect has what's called critical congenital heart disease (CCHD). Infants with critical CHD face a higher risk of health complications and death if they are not diagnosed in utero (in the womb) or soon after birth. Babies who do survive are at greater risk for brain injury and developmental delays if intervention is delayed.

Learn about other cardiac conditions we treat, including fetal heart conditions and pediatric heart conditions in infancy and childhood.

What causes congenital heart disease?

Congenital heart defects occur when the heart does not develop normally during the early weeks of the mother's pregnancy. The exact reason this occurs is unknown, but research is ongoing. The following factors have been associated with CHD – meaning these may or may not play a role:

How common are congenital heart defects?

CHDs are the most common type of birth defect, affecting nearly 40,000 births in the U.S. each year, or approximately 1 in 100 babies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that more than 2 million people in the U.S. are living with a congenital heart defect.

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Get to know our pediatric experts.

Erin Lueth, MD

Erin Lueth, MD

Cardiology - Pediatric, Pediatrics

James Jaggers, MD

James Jaggers, MD

Cardiothoracic Surgery, Cardiac Surgery

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Joseph Kay, MD

Joseph Kay, MD

Adult Congenital Heart Disease, Cardiology, Cardiology - Pediatric

Elizabeth Yeung, MD

Elizabeth Yeung, MD

Cardiology - Pediatric, Pediatrics

Children's Colorado in the news

  • 9News
    Adults find treatment for congenital heart disease at Children’s Colorado
    July 03, 2019

    Born with a congenital heart defect, Chris Dini now works as a firefighter in Fort Collins. Though he’s now 38, he still receives treatment at Children’s Colorado. Joseph Kay, MD, wants more teens and adults with congenital heart disease to know they need specialized care as they age.

  • CBS4
    Minimally invasive procedure fixes hole in baby’s heart
    June 18, 2019

    About half of children with Down syndrome have congenital heart disease. At other hospitals, Charlie Smith would have needed open heart surgery to repair her heart. But at Children’s Colorado, Gareth Morgan, MD, repaired Charlie’s heart defect through a minimally invasive procedure called heart catheterization.

  • 9News
    Discussing life with adult congenital heart disease
    February 13, 2019

    Spencer Rice, a captain at the Poudre Fire Authority in Fort Collins, brought his daughter to a specialist for a heart murmur. He saw the same doctor a month later and eventually had surgery at Children’s Colorado.