While heart disease is a common problem affecting adults, heart disease can affect little hearts too. Most pediatric heart conditions are diagnosed before or just after birth, but it’s important to pay attention to your child’s health and recognize the signs of potential problems.
Read on to learn about pediatric heart disease and common symptoms that might indicate a heart problem in your child.
What is pediatric heart disease?
Heart conditions for children are divided into two categories: congenital heart disease (CHD) and acquired heart disease.
The most common type of pediatric heart disease is CHD, meaning that children are born with it. It’s estimated that about 40,000 babies are born with a congenital heart disease (CHD) each year in the U.S., ranging from mild to severe.
“The most common congenital defects we see are various shunt-type heart defects, like ventricular septal defects, atrial septal defects and patent ductus arteriosus,” said Michael Seckeler, MD, professor of pediatric cardiology and an interventional pediatric cardiologist with Banner Health in Arizona. “Each of these causes too much blood flow to the lungs which can cause symptoms.”
Acquired heart disease is the kind we most often associate with adults, but children can also be affected. The most common acquired heart diseases are cardiomyopathy, myocarditis and Kawasaki disease. Both cardiomyopathy and myocarditis cause inflammation and injury to the pumping muscles of the heart that can weaken the heart and make it pump poorly. Kawasaki disease is an inflammatory condition that can affect the pumping muscles, and more rarely, cause an abnormal enlargement of the coronary arteries that provide blood flow to the heart. While these both sound scary, Dr. Seckeler said they are very rare.
“Worldwide, the most common acquired heart disease is still acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease, but we almost never see this in the U.S., unless it’s a child who’s moved here from overseas,” he said.
Other signs of heart problems in children
In most cases, your child will be diagnosed before birth or soon after birth by a health care provider or a pediatric specialist, before you notice visible symptoms. However, here are some symptoms to watch out for in infants, children and young adults.
Heart problems in babies
If your baby is going to have symptoms from CHD, it is typically a shunt-type heart defect (a hole or opening). Some of the symptoms associated with these heart defects might include:
- Fast or rapid breathing, even while sleeping
- Excessive sweating (pouring down forehead) while feeding
- Trouble gaining weight
- Excessively tired after feeding
- Cyanosis, or purplish discoloration of the gums and tongue
If your baby is experiencing any of these symptoms, call your child’s doctor right away.
In addition to the above symptoms, a potential sign of a CHD that your child’s doctor might hear is a heart murmur. While many children with CHD do develop heart murmurs, the vast majority of children with murmurs don’t have CHD, Dr. Seckeler noted.
“While we want to evaluate a baby with a heart murmur, it’s not common to actually find true congenital heart disease,” he said. “This is not to say that children shouldn’t be evaluated appropriately, but parents shouldn’t worry excessively while waiting to see a pediatric cardiologist.”
Heart problems in children and young adults
Older children and young adults are unlikely to have undiagnosed CHD as many will be diagnosed as infants due to the above symptoms. As well, if your child is active in sports, they will have already undergone a physical exam with their doctor that included questions to capture potential health problems early. However, some more mild diseases might not cause symptoms for several years and there could be a slow development.
If your child is experiencing chest pain, shortness of breath, heart palpitations or passing out (syncope), they should be evaluated.
“Most often these symptoms, along with heart murmurs, are almost never caused by congenital heart defects,” Dr. Seckeler said. “However, the best way to tell the difference is an evaluation by a pediatric cardiologist.”
Worried about your child?
If you suspect your child might have an underlying heart condition, schedule an appointment with your child’s health care provider to have your child assessed.
“I think it’s important for families to have trust in their pediatricians’ evaluations of their children,” Dr. Seckeler said. “Parents should make sure that they are clear in their concern about their child and why they think it might be related to congenital heart disease. It’s also important to let them know if there is any concerning family history, specifically other family members with congenital heart disease.”
If your child’s doctor has serious concerns about the possibility of symptomatic CHD, it’s always okay for the doctor to reach out to a pediatric cardiologist to ensure that the child is seen in a timely fashion to ensure that any disease is diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible.
To find a Banner Health pediatric specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.