Common Birth Defects

Heart defects are among the most common birth defects.
Heart defects are among the most common birth defects.

Each year in the United States, about 150,000 newborns have birth defects ranging from mild to life threatening. The three leading categories of birth defects are structural/metabolic, congenital infections, and other conditions. While progress has been made in the detection and treatment of newborn birth defects, they remain the leading cause of death in the first year of life. Common birth defects are often the result of genetic and environmental factors, but the causes of well over half of all birth defects are currently unknown. The following is a brief sketch of the most commonly noted birth defects.

Congenital Heart Defects

What are congenital heart defects?

Congenital heart defects can affect any of the different parts or functions of the heart, which is responsible for pumping blood through the body. Defects can include holes in the wall of the heart, a heart that beats too quickly or too slowly, valve defects that prevent blood from flowing smoothly, or other malformations that prevent the heart and circulatory system from functioning efficiently.

How common are congenital heart defects?

Heart defects are among the most common birth defects. Each year more than 25,000 U.S. infants are born with heart defects. These defects can be very mild, exhibiting no symptoms for many years, or they can be severe, requiring immediate attention at birth. In most cases, doctors cannot pinpoint what causes a baby's heart to develop abnormally. So far, scientists believe there are both environmental and genetic factors that contribute to congenital heart defects. Women who contract rubella or some other viral infections may have a greater risk of having a baby with a heart defect. Certain chronic illnesses in the mother, such as diabetes, can increase the risk of congenital heart defects in the baby. Doctors have identified certain drugs, such as some taken for acne and depression, as risk factors. Studies have also shown that

How is the baby affected by congenital heart defects?

A defect in the heart can impair its ability to circulate oxygenated blood through the body. The baby may exhibit a variety of symptoms, such as a rapid heartbeat or breathing difficulties, especially during exercise. In infants, this tendency to tire easily may interfere with nursing and result in poor weight gain. Some children with heart defects show a pale grayish or bluish coloring of the skin. There are some babies and children with heart defects who experience no symptoms; the defect may be diagnosed when the doctor hears an abnormal sound called a murmur. Some defects are so slight that the baby may appear healthy for many years after birth.

What are the treatment options for congenital heart defects?

The prognosis for children with congenital heart defects has improved significantly in the past 40 years. Today, most heart defects can be corrected, or at least helped, by surgery, medicines, and devices such as pacemakers. There are prenatal tests that can detect many heart defects before birth. A special form of ultrasound may show a fetal heart that is beating too quickly or too slowly. In that case, medications may be able to restore a normal heart rhythm. Surgical interventions after birth have also improved. Until recently, it was often necessary to make temporary surgical repairs in infancy and postpone full corrective surgery until later in childhood. Today, half of children who require surgery to correct a heart defect can undergo the procedure before age 2.