What Kinds of Health Problems are Caused by Ventricular Septal Defects?

In previous postings, we briefly discussed ventricular septal defects (VSDs), which are holes in the wall (septum) that divides the two lower chambers, or ventricles, of the heart. A VSD occurs during pregnancy when the wall (septum) between the two ventricles does not properly and fully develop, thus leaving a hole in that wall. A newborn baby with ventricular septal defect can have one or more holes in different places in the septum.

In a properly formed infant’s heart, the right side of the heart supplies oxygen-poor blood to the lungs, and the left side pumps oxygen-rich blood to all the parts of the body other than the lungs. If this baby has a ventricular septal defect, blood can flow from the left ventricle through the septal defect and from there to the lungs. This causes the baby’s heart and lungs to work harder than they should. If this is allowed to go on for too long without being surgically repaired, the baby is at risk for other serious complications. This includes heart failure, pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the lungs), irregular hearbeat (arrhythmia), and even stroke.

Some of the signs of ventricular septal defect are shortness of breath, fast or heavy breathing, poor weight gain, fatigue during feeding, and sweating. The size of the hole in the septum is usually related to the severity of the symptoms. In fact, if the hole is very small, it will often close on its own over time. Larger holes usually require one or more surgeries.

Your baby’s doctor can usually diagnose a ventricular septal defects through examination and tests. Sometimes, the doctor can hear what is called a heart murmur with a stethoscope when there is a very clear “swooshing” sound. The doctor also can perform an echocardiogram which can reveal much more information (such as location and size of the hole, and how much blood is passing through it) about the heart and help with a specific diagnosis.

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