What is the difference between congenital heart disease and congenital heart defect?

The terms congenital heart defect and congenital heart disease are often used interchangeably. Is there a difference?

What is a Congenital Heart Defect?

A congenital heart defect refers to a structural difference of the heart that has been present since birth. Congenital, by definition, means you are born with it. CHD medical care has improved over recent decades, but there is still no cure for congenital heart defects. Congenital heart defects may change the way blood flows through the heart or may mean pieces of the heart are missing, underdeveloped, or in the wrong place altogether. Some people with congenital heart defects do not have symptoms at birth, while others experience life-threatening situations right away.

Types of Congenital Heart Defects

There are many different types of congenital heart defects, but in general, they are typically divided into three main categories:

  • Heart valve defects: Valves inside the heart direct blood flow and sometimes close up or leak; this affects the heart’s ability to pump blood correctly.
  • Heart wall defects: When the natural walls that exist between the left and right sides of the heart do not develop correctly, the upper and lower chambers of the heart can cause blood to back up. This goes into the heart and may build up in places where it doesn’t belong. This puts more pressure on the heart, which requires it to work harder. Often this leads to high blood pressure.
  • Blood vessel defects: The arteries and veins in your body carry blood to the heart and back out to the body. If these do not work properly, they can reduce or block blood flow.

Signs and Symptoms of Congenital Heart Defects

According to the CDC, signs and symptoms of severe congenital heart defects in newborns include:

  • Blue-tinted nails or lips (may appear purple/dusky in infants with brown and black skin color)
  • Fast or troubled breathing
  • Tiredness when feeding
  • Sleepiness

What is Congenital Heart Disease?

Congenital heart disease refers to the lifelong complications of being born with anomalies of the heart, whether structural or electrical (Wolf-Parkinson-White syndrome, for example). Patients with congenital heart defects may undergo surgical repair or surgical palliation, but those procedures are not a cure for congenital heart disease. The person will require specialized care across multiple body systems for their entire life.

Advances in Diagnosis

There have been major advances in both diagnosis and treatment, allowing babies to survive with congenital heart disease. Approximately 85% of all children with critical CHD will reach adulthood.

Sometimes, however, the signs of a congenital heart defect are not realized until adulthood (Bicuspid Aortic Valve, for example). Even those diagnosed in adulthood have better outcomes than in years past.


There are many types of congenital heart defects, and an individual’s treatment depends on the type and severity of their defects. Some patients will require open-heart surgery shortly after birth, while others may need several surgeries throughout childhood and into adulthood. Some defects can be surgically repaired in the cardiac catheterization lab, avoiding open-heart surgery.

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