Congenital Heart Defects: Symptoms & Treatment

Congenital heart defects are the most common type of birth defect, affecting as many as 1 in 125 children in the US. SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital has the region’s most comprehensive pediatric cardiology team, meeting the needs of children across the Midwest suffering from these defects.

Our SLUCare Physician Group team focuses on innovation and expansion so that we can serve more families, and offer state-of-the-art treatments for infants, children and young adults with congenital heart defects.

Signs & Symptoms of Congenital Heart Defects

Depending on your child’s age and the severity of the defect, different symptoms may present themselves.

Before Birth

A congenital heart defect is usually diagnosed in children after birth. In some cases though, an ultrasound of the heart can detect problems in a fetus after just 17 or 18 weeks gestation. A heart rate that is too fast or too slow are both signs that an unborn child may have a congenital heart defect.

After Birth

Congenital heart defects in newborns can cause potentially life-threatening symptoms, including:

  • Heart murmur
  • Bluish tint to the skin, lips and fingernails
  • Shortness of breath
  • Low blood pressure
  • Poor feeding due to tiring easily while nursing
  • Poor weight gain

Severe congenital heart defect symptoms typically appear in the first few months of life. For less serious cases, pediatricians often detect congenital heart defects during a routine medical checkup.

If your child develops bluish skin or breathing problems, call 911 immediately. With less serious symptoms, it’s best to see a trained pediatric cardiologist as soon as possible. Early detection of any heart problems is key to effective treatment.

Diagnosing Congenital Heart Defects

At SSM Health Cardinal Glennon, we utilize a variety of tests to identify heart conditions in children. The following are diagnostic procedures we may use to better understand what’s happening with your child’s heart:

  • Pediatric cardiac catheterization: provides accurate and detailed information about the structure of the heart and how it works
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG): records the electrical activity of the heart
  • Echocardiogram (echo): ultrasound of the heart
  • Cardiac MRI: non-invasive test that uses imaging technology, commonly known as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), to take detailed photos of the heart
  • Holter monitor: portable device that creates a 24-hour, continuous recording of a heartbeat
  • Pulse oximetry: used to determine the oxygen saturation of the blood
  • Stress (treadmill) test: takes a continuous recording of the heart rhythm and blood pressure during exercise on a treadmill

Treating Congenital Heart Defects

Thanks to advanced treatment options for congenital heart defects, many children will go on to live a healthy, full life.

Cardiac Catheterization

Cardiac catheterization is a less invasive technique than heart surgery. It can be used to implant life-saving devices like stents or shunts, and to make repairs to different areas of your child’s heart.


Some implants are temporarily used if your child is very young or needs to grow stronger before a more permanent surgery or treatment. Some implants include:

  • Pacemakers
  • Implanted defibrillators
  • Stents
  • Shunts

Heart Surgery

Many children with a congenital heart defect can be treated with one operation when they’re still an infant. A child with a more complex heart defect may need two or three surgeries during the first several years of their life.

Heart Transplant

Children with severe heart defects or issues may need a heart transplant. Our pediatric transplant team will work closely with you to help you navigate this treatment option.


Medications prescribed by cardiologists can help control your child’s heart beat or help a heart transplant grow in conjunction with your child.

Lifestyle Habits

Just like adults with heart disease, lifestyle changes can improve your child’s quality of life. Your cardiologist will work with your family to make sure your lifestyle habits create the best environment for your child.

If your child has been diagnosed with a congenital heart defect, you can rest assured that they will receive exceptional, comprehensive care at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon. Our pediatric heart team will partner with you to determine the best treatment plan. No matter your child’s condition, we’re here to help you understand the implications and provide the care your child needs.

To schedule an appointment with our team, please call 314-577-5674. We’ll take it from there and discuss your next steps.

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