February is American Heart Month, so it’s an appropriate time to think about our kids’ heart health. Many parents experience anxiety around the more serious childhood illnesses that could affect their kids; the most common we hear parents express concern about are cancer, issues of the brain and heart defects.
Many heart defects are detected when a child is a newborn. Advanced screening methods like pulse oximetry, which calculates the levels of oxygen in the blood, are readily available to help detect potential heart defects or other heart issues in newborns. Serious heart defects are typically not subtle and can usually be noticed fairly readily.
There are at least 18 types of heart defects that are now recognized. The most common congenital heart defects cause obstruction to blood flow or allow either too little or too much blood flow through the lungs. The heart defects that are most commonly seen and treated at Arkansas Children’s Hospital are:
Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD) – A hole in the wall separating the two lower chambers of the heart.
Atrial Septal Defect (ASD) – A hole in the wall that separates the top two chambers of the heart.
Tetralogy of Fallot (TOF) – Four issues are present in this defect: a hole between the lower chambers of the heart, an obstruction from the heart to the lungs, the aorta lies over the hole in the lower chambers and the muscle surrounding the lower right chamber is thickened.
Progress in diagnosing and treating heart defects makes the prognosis for children with these issues much more positive than in years past. In fact, adult congenital heart disease is becoming a new subspecialty within cardiology because the livelihood of those diagnosed has so vastly improved.
Another common heart condition is heart murmurs. It can be scary for a parent to hear that their child has a murmur, but in many cases, they are not life-threatening. So what exactly is a heart murmur? It’s basically a noise heard between the beats of heart, and is very common and rarely a cause for concern.
When a murmur is detected within the first six months of a baby’s life, a pediatric cardiologist may be consulted to determine whether or not treatment will be required. An echocardiogram may be administered to view the heart, much like a sonogram performed during pregnancy.
In most cases the heart murmur will close on its own. In premature babies or in more serious cases, medication or surgery may be needed. Again, these cases are rare.
What about children with chest pain? Many active teens might experience dizziness or chest pain, which could certainly be scary for the child and parent. Luckily, most of these situations aren’t linked to the heart, but more commonly to caffeine, asthma or chest wall pain. Still, while most teens experiencing chest pain won’t end up with any heart-related complications, it’s a good idea to visit with your doctor to rule out any serious causes.
Children and teens aren’t immune to heart diseases such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, so it’s important to do what we can to encourage heart health. The same tips suggested for adults to maintain a healthy heart ring true for teens and younger children as well: maintain a healthy weight, exercise, avoid tobacco or alcohol and learn to manage stress appropriately. It is also important that your child participates in well-child exams and regular physicals.
When we think about heart health this month, it’s important to remember that heart defects are rare. But it is also important to remember that there are practical things we can all do to help keep our kiddos’ hearts healthy.
Sam Smith, MD, is surgeon in chief at Arkansas Children’s Hospital and a professor of Surgery at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He writes a column each week covering a variety of kids’ medical concerns. If you have a topic you’d like him to consider addressing, email firstname.lastname@example.org.