Introduction 

Congenital heart disease is a general term for a range of birth defects that affect the normal workings of the heart.

The term "congenital" means the condition is present at birth.

Congenital heart disease is one of the most common types of birth defect, affecting up to 9 in every 1,000 babies born in the UK.

Why it happens

In most cases, no obvious cause of congenital heart disease is identified. However, some things are known to increase the risk of the condition, including:

  • Down's syndrome  a genetic disorder that affects a baby's normal physical development and causes learning difficulties
  • the mother having certain infections, such as rubella, during pregnancy
  • the mother having poorly controlled type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes
  • other chromosome defects, where genes may be altered from normal and can be inherited 

Read more about the causes of congenital heart disease and preventing congenital heart disease.

Many cases of congenital heart disease are diagnosed before a baby is born during an ultrasound scan in pregnancy. However, it's not always possible to detect congenital heart defects in this way.

Signs and symptoms

Congenital heart disease can have a number of symptoms, including:

  • rapid heartbeat
  • rapid breathing
  • excessive sweating
  • extreme tiredness and fatigue
  • a blue tinge to the skin (cyanosis)
  • tiredness and rapid breathing when a baby is feeding 

These problems are sometimes noticeable soon after birth, although mild defects may not cause any problems until later in life.

Read more about the symptoms of congenital heart disease and diagnosing congenital heart disease.

Types of congenital heart disease

There are many types of congenital heart disease and they sometimes occur in combination. Some of the more common defects include:

  • septal defects  where there's a hole between two of the heart's chambers (commonly referred to as a "hole in the heart")
  • coarctation of the aorta  where the main large artery of the body, called the aorta, is narrower than normal
  • pulmonary valve stenosis  where the pulmonary valve, which controls the flow of blood out of the lower right chamber of the heart to the lungs, is narrower than normal
  • transposition of the great arteries  where the pulmonary and aortic valves and the arteries they're connected to have swapped positions

Read more about the types of congenital heart disease.

Treating congenital heart disease

Treatment for congenital heart disease usually depends on the defect you or your child has.

Mild defects, such as holes in the heart, often don't need to be treated, as they may improve on their own and may not cause any further problems.

Surgery or interventional procedures are usually required if the defect is significant and causing problems. Modern surgical techniques can often restore most or all of the heart's normal function, and nowadays about 80% of children with congenital heart disease will survive into adulthood.

However, people with congenital heart disease often need treatment throughout their life and therefore require specialist review during childhood and adulthood. This is because people with complex heart problems can develop further problems with their heart rhythm or valves over time.

Most surgery and interventional procedures aren't considered to be a cure. The affected person's ability to exercise may be limited, which can progress over time and may lead to the need for further surgery or intervention.

Some people with more complex congenital heart disease may not have a normal life span. It's important that a person with heart disease and their parents or carers discuss these issues with their specialist medical team.

Read more about treating congenital heart disease and the complications of congenital heart disease.

The heart


The heart is divided into four main sections called chambers. These are known as the:

  • left atrium (collects blood returning from the lungs)
  • left ventricle (the main pumping chamber for the body)
  • right atrium (collects blood returning from the body's veins)
  • right ventricle (pumps bloods to the lungs) 

There are also four valves controlling how the blood flows through the heart and around the body. These are known as the:

  • mitral valve (separating the left atrium from the left ventricle)
  • aortic valve (separating the left ventricle from the main artery, the aorta)
  • tricuspid valve (separating the right atrium from the right ventricle)
  • pulmonary valve (separating the right ventricle from the pulmonary artery to the lung)

Congenital heart disease can occur if any of these chambers or valves doesn't develop properly while a baby is in the womb.

Page last reviewed: 05/06/2015

Next review due: 05/06/2017