What is atrial septal defect?

Atrial septal defect in children: Overview

The heart is a muscular pump that has four chambers. An atrial septal defect is an opening in the wall between the upper chambers of the heart. It is a type of congenital heart disease, which means that your child was born with it. When this opening is present, some of the blood may flow from one side of the heart through the hole to the other side. This can strain the heart.

A very small hole may not cause problems. A larger hole may damage the lungs and weaken the heart over time. You and your child's doctor can decide if a procedure to close the hole is right for your child.

Atrial septal defect

An atrial septal defect is an opening in the wall that separates the upper chambers of the heart. It is a type of congenital heart disease, which refers to structural problems that develop before a baby is born or at birth.

When an atrial septal defect is present, some oxygen-rich blood that should have been pumped to the body flows from one side of the heart to the other. This blood is then pumped to the lungs. This creates extra work for one side of the heart.

If an atrial septal defect is large, heart failure may occur, although this is not common in children. Many children have no symptoms. So an atrial septal defect may not be found until a child is older or becomes an adult.

A procedure can typically be used to close the opening. This prevents blood from flowing between chambers.

What are the symptoms of a mild atrial septal defect in newborns?

Many babies have no symptoms, especially if the hole is small. The hole may close on its own over time.

If the hole is large, and the heart has to work too hard, a baby may have symptoms, such as trouble breathing or fast breathing.

How is a severe atrial septal defect in newborns treated?

If the hole is large or causing symptoms, your doctor may advise treatment to close the hole. Some children may have a treatment called catheterization.

If your baby has this treatment, your baby will be asleep while it is done. The doctor puts a thin tube into a blood vessel in your child's groin. This tube is called a catheter. The doctor will move the catheter through the blood vessel to the heart. A dye can be put into the catheter. The doctor can take X-ray pictures of the dye as it moves through your child's heart and blood vessels.

The pictures can show exactly where the hole is. Then the doctor moves special tools through the catheter to the heart. The doctor uses these tools to close the hole. Then the tools and the catheter are removed.

Some babies have surgery to close the hole.

How is a mild atrial septal defect diagnosed in newborns?

Your doctor may hear abnormal heart sounds, such as a heart murmur, when examining your baby.

Your doctor will order tests to find the cause of abnormal sounds or of symptoms. The most common test used to identify this problem is called an echocardiogram, or "echo" for short. It uses sound waves to make an image of your baby's heart.

Other tests, such as an EKG (electrocardiogram), chest X-ray, and checking the amount of oxygen in the blood, also help identify the problem.

How can you care for yourself when you have an atrial septal defect?

  • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine. You will get more details on the specific medicines your doctor prescribes.
  • Congenital heart disease can increase your risk of an infection in your heart. Talk to your doctor about your own risk. You may need to take antibiotics before certain dental or surgical procedures to prevent infection. Also, take good care of your teeth and gums.
  • Eat heart-healthy foods. These foods include vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, lean meat, fish, and whole grains. Limit alcohol, sodium, and sugar.
  • Get regular exercise. Try for 30 minutes on most days of the week. If you do not have other heart or lung problems, you likely do not have limits on the type or level of activity that you can do. You may want to walk, swim, bike, or do other activities. Ask your doctor what level of exercise is safe for you.
  • Stay at a healthy weight. Lose weight if you need to.
  • Do not smoke. Smoking can make heart problems worse. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • Manage other health problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. If you think you may have a problem with alcohol or drug use, talk to your doctor.
  • Avoid infections such as COVID-19, colds, and the flu. Get the flu vaccine every year. Talk with your doctor about getting a pneumococcal vaccine. Stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines.

What can you expect if your newborn has a mild atrial septal defect?

Your doctor will make sure that you have all the information you need to take care of your baby at home.

Many babies won't have any symptoms. They will only need regular checkups. But it is important to watch for symptoms that may mean there is a problem. These include:

  • Fast breathing.
  • Sweating while feeding.
  • Not eating well.
  • Not gaining enough weight.

What is a severe atrial septal defect in a newborn?

An atrial septal defect is a type of congenital heart disease. Congenital heart disease refers to heart problems a baby is born with.

The heart is a muscular pump with four chambers. The two bottom chambers are the left and right ventricles. The two top chambers—the left atrium and right atrium—are separated by a wall of tissue called a septum. An atrial septal defect is a hole in this wall.

A very small hole may not cause problems. It may close on its own.

When the hole is larger, some of the blood may flow through it from the left atrium to the right atrium. So the right side of the heart may pump too much blood. Over time, this can cause the right ventricle to enlarge. And it can damage the lungs and weaken the heart.

Atrial septal defect in children: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think your child may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • Your child has trouble breathing.
  • Your child passes out (loses consciousness).

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your child is dizzy or lightheaded, or your child feels about to faint.
  • Your child has swelling in the legs, ankles, or feet.
  • Your child's skin looks pale or blue.

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your child is having trouble doing their usual activities.
  • Your child is not gaining weight as expected.
  • Your child does not get better as expected.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.