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About one in every 100 children has a heart problem (also called
a heart defect). Heart defects can usually be treated with
medicine, procedures or surgery. Common symptoms include a blue
colour of the skin and lips, shortness of breath and difficulty
feeding. However, many children have no symptoms and parents do not
even know their child has a heart defect. Most tests for heart
problems are simple, quick and are not painful. Many children with
heart defects live a normal and full life.
The heart has four chambers (like rooms), two on each side of
the body. The right side sends blood to the lungs to collect oxygen
from the air we breathe, and the left side collects the fresh blood
back from the lungs and pumps it to the rest of the body.
Blood from the lungs, which is full of oxygen, is often called
'red' blood, as it looks bright red. Blood that
has returned from the body back to the heart does
not have much oxygen so it looks darker (like a blue colour) and is
often called 'blue' blood. 'Walls' in the heart keep this 'red' and
'blue' blood separate and 'valves' (like one-way doors) keep the
blood flowing in the right direction.
Sometimes there is a defect (problem) in the walls of the heart
e.g. a 'hole in the heart') or to the valves (e.g. they may be too
narrow or completely blocked), which means either the blue and red
blood gets mixed up or the heart may not pump very well.
When these problems occur, the body may not get as much oxygen
Many children appear healthy and their parents do not know they
have a heart problem. If children do have symptoms, they often
develop in the first few weeks after they are born.
Common symptoms include:
These symptoms result from a reduced oxygen supply to the body,
which happens because:
There are several tests performed for heart problems, most of which are simple, quick and are not painful:
Because your child must lie very still, sometimes they are
given some medicine (sedation) to make them feel sleepy. This is
usually a liquid they drink or a small squirt given up the nose by
syringe. There are no needles involved.
If your family doctor or paediatrician thinks it is not urgent,
you may need to wait several weeks for an appointment with the
heart specialist. If symptoms develop very quickly, or if your
baby is a newborn, your doctor will arrange tests and
treatment much faster. Most heart defects can be fixed with
medicine. Sometimes surgery or other procedures may be needed.
In some cases there is no need for any treatment.
Some parents worry that their child might die suddenly.
Fortunately, this is extremely rare for children. Most children
with heart problems can have effective treatment and many live an
active and healthy life.
Many parents feel very protective of their child if
they have a heart problem. Yet many children can be
independent, play competitive sports and do almost all of the things
that other children do. If your child's school or another
professional is concerned or gives you different advice, talk with
your child's cardiologist (heart specialist) and ask for a letter about what
your child can or cannot do.
After they have been treated, children with heart problems
usually see their GP/family doctor or paediatrician with visits to
their cardiologist every year or so. If you have concerns you
should speak with your child's family doctor or cardiologist.
Produced by RCH Dept. of Cardiology. Thanks to the parents
who gave feedback to update this factsheet. First published
2004. Updated October 2010.
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