According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, more than 1 million adults in the United States are living with congenital heart defects. Congenital heart defects are the most common type of birth defect, affecting 8 out of every 1,000 newborns. More than 35,000 babies are born each year in the United States with congenital heart defects. Most people who have complex heart defects continue to need special heart care throughout their lives.

During American Heart Month, it’s a good time to learn a little bit more about congenital heart defects. Here are some frequently-asked-questions.

What is congenital heart disease and how is it different from other kinds of heart disease?

Congenital heart disease is a condition with which you are born. Other kinds of heart disease may develop over time, whether through infection, coronary artery disease, trauma or other reasons.

Does congenital heart disease always cause a problem?

Not always. There are some people whose congenital heart disease is not even recognized until they are adults or even elderly. Small holes in the heart that have not caused problems are an example. Often, especially now with prenatal imaging, congenital heart problems are detected very early and can be treated earlier.

Can congenital heart problems be fixed?

Yes, many congenital heart problems can be treated through surgery or, in some cases, heart transplantation.

What are some of the most common examples of congenital heart problems?

  • A ventricular septal defect, commonly known as a “hole in the heart” occurs when the wall separating the bottom chambers of the heart doesn’t form properly, causing blood to leak from the left ventricle into the right ventricle, instead of moving into the body. This condition can lead to heart failure, high blood pressure, infection, irregular heartbeat and growth delays. Some holes close on their own and others require surgery.
  • An atrial septal defect occurs when the wall between the top two chambers of the heart doesn’t close properly.
  • Patent ductus arteriosus occurs when a blood vessel that allows blood to bypass the lungs while a fetus is getting oxygen through the placenta fails to close after birth. This can cause infection or heart failure and can be treated with medicines or surgery if necessary.
  • Pulmonary valve stenosis occurs when the pulmonary valve narrows, limiting blood flow from the right ventricle to the lungs.
  • Aortic stenosis makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood into the aorta and then into the rest of the body.
  • Tetralogy of Fallot is a combination of four defects that cause an insufficient amount of oxygenated blood to reach the body. Babies born with this condition were once known as “blue babies,” and this condition requires surgery early in life.

There are other congenital heart defects as well. Click here for more information on any of these conditions and how they are treated.