Heart Disease in Children
Heart disease is difficult enough when it strikes adults, but it can be especially tragic in children.
There are many different types of heart problems that can affect children. They include congenital heart defects, viral infections that affect the heart, and even heart disease acquired later in childhood due to illnesses or genetic syndromes.
The good news is that with advances in medicine and technology, many children with heart disease go on to live active, full lives.
Congenital Heart Disease
Congenital heart disease is a type of heart disease that children are born with, usually caused by heart defects that are present at birth.
In fact, the most common heart conditions found in children are structural heart defects, which occur in roughly 8 of 1,000 live births. These usually involve a problem with the heart muscle or the heart valves, and include:
heart valve conditions like a narrowing of the aortic valve, which restricts blood flow, or a mitral valve prolapse, where the mitral valve leaks
defects in the wall that separates the left and right sides of the heart (the septum)
Other congenital heart defects that affect children include:
hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), where the left side of the heart is underdeveloped
holes in the heart, typically in the walls between the chambers and between major blood vessels leaving the heart; they include ventricular septal defects, atrial septal defects, and patent ductus ateriosus
tetralogy of Fallot, which is a combination of four defects, including a hole in the ventricular septum, a narrowed passage between the right ventricle, pulmonary artery, a thickened right side of the heart, and a displaced aorta
Congenital heart defects may have long-term effects on a child’s health. They’re usually treated with surgery, catheter procedures, medications, and in severe cases, heart transplants.
Some children will require lifelong monitoring and treatment.
Atherosclerosis is the term used to describe the buildup of fat and cholesterol-filled plaques inside the arteries. As the buildup increases, arteries become stiffened and narrowed, which increases the risk of blood clots and heart attacks. It typically takes many years for atherosclerosis to develop. It’s unusual for children or teenagers to suffer from it.
However, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and other health issues put children at higher risk. Doctors recommend screening for high cholesterol and high blood pressure in children who have risk factors like family history of heart disease or diabetes and are overweight or obese.
Treatment typically involves lifestyle changes like increased exercise and dietary modifications.
An arrhythmia is an abnormal rhythm of the heart. This can cause the heart to pump less efficiently.
Many different types of arrhythmias may occur in children, including:
a fast heart rate (tachycardia)
a slow heart rate (bradycardia)
long Q-T Syndrome (LQTS)
Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (WPW syndrome)
Symptoms may include:
Treatments depend on the type of arrhythmia and how it’s affecting the child’s health.
A heart murmur is a “whooshing” sound made by blood circulating through the heart’s chambers, valves, or through blood vessels near the heart. Sometimes it’s harmless. Other times it may signal an underlying cardiovascular problem.
Heart murmurs may be caused by congenital heart defects, fever, or anemia. If a doctor hears a heart murmur in a child, they’ll perform additional tests to be sure the heart is healthy. “Innocent” heart murmurs usually resolve by themselves, but others may require additional treatment.