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Atrial Septal Defect

Overview

Your 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 defect, which means that you were born with it. When this defect 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. Larger holes can weaken the heart and lead to heart failure. Your doctor will determine if the defect should be closed.

  • Symptoms

    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.

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

    If the hole is large and the heart has to work too hard, a baby may have symptoms, such as:

    • Fast breathing.
    • Sweating while feeding.
    • Not eating well.
    • Trouble gaining weight.
  • When to Call

    Atrial septal defect: When to call

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

    • You have severe trouble breathing.
    • You cough up pink, foamy mucus and you have trouble breathing.
    • You have symptoms of a heart attack. These may include:
      • Chest pain or pressure, or a strange feeling in the chest.
      • Sweating.
      • Shortness of breath.
      • Nausea or vomiting.
      • Pain, pressure, or a strange feeling in the back, neck, jaw, or upper belly or in one or both shoulders or arms.
      • Lightheadedness or sudden weakness.
      • A fast or irregular heartbeat.
      After you call 911, the operator may tell you to chew 1 adult-strength or 2 to 4 low-dose aspirin. Wait for an ambulance. Do not try to drive yourself.
    • You have symptoms of a stroke. These may include:
      • Sudden numbness, tingling, weakness, or loss of movement in your face, arm, or leg, especially on only one side of your body.
      • Sudden vision changes.
      • Sudden trouble speaking.
      • Sudden confusion or trouble understanding simple statements.
      • Sudden problems with walking or balance.
      • A sudden, severe headache that is different from past headaches.
    • You passed out (lost consciousness).

    Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

    • You have new or increased shortness of breath.
    • You are dizzy or lightheaded, or you feel like you may faint.
    • You have sudden weight gain, such as more than 2 to 3 pounds in a day or 5 pounds in a week. (Your doctor may suggest a different range of weight gain.)
    • You have increased swelling in your legs, ankles, or feet.
    • You are suddenly so tired or weak that you cannot do your usual activities.

    Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if you have any problems.

  • Diagnosis

    How is a mild atrial septal defect diagnosed in newborns?

    Your doctor may hear abnormal heart sounds, such as a heart murmur, when he or she examines 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 defect 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 is a severe atrial septal defect diagnosed in newborns?

    Your doctor may hear abnormal heart sounds, such as a heart murmur, when he or she examines your baby.

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

    Your baby may have other tests to find the problem, such as an EKG (electrocardiogram) or a chest X-ray. Another test may look at the amount of oxygen in the blood.

  • Treatment

    How is a mild atrial septal defect in newborns treated?

    If the hole is large enough to cause symptoms, your doctor may suggest a treatment called catheterization to close the hole.

    Your baby will be asleep during this treatment. 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 may need surgery to close the hole.

    Your doctor will explain what symptoms to watch for at home. Regular checkups will help your doctor watch your baby for symptoms over time.

    How is a severe atrial septal defect in newborns treated?

    If the hole is large enough to cause symptoms, your doctor may advise surgery. Some children may have a treatment called catheterization.

    If your baby has this treatment, he or she 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 may need surgery to close the hole.

  • Self-Care

    How can you care for your child who has an atrial septal defect?

    • Have your child take medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think your child is having a problem with the medicine. You will get more details on the specific medicines your doctor prescribes.
    • Watch for symptoms that may mean there is a problem. Symptoms include feeling dizzy, being too tired to do usual activities, or not gaining weight.
    • Heart defects can increase your child’s risk of an infection in the heart. Talk to your doctor about your child’s risk. Your child may need to take antibiotics before certain dental or surgical procedures to prevent infection.
    • Make sure that your child gets all the recommended vaccines, which helps keep your child healthy. Make sure family members and people who are in close contact with your child also get recommended vaccines.
    • Help your child eat heart-healthy foods. This includes lots of fruits and vegetables, lean meats, nonfat and low-fat dairy products, and whole grains.
    • If your child’s doctor recommends it, help your child get regular exercise. Ask your doctor what types of activities and how much exercise is safe for your child
    • Keep your child away from smoke. Do not smoke or let anyone else smoke around your child or in your house. Being around smoke can make your child’s heart problems worse.

    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.
    • Heart defects 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.
    • Eat a heart-healthy diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and low-fat or nonfat dairy foods.
    • 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.
    • Get recommended vaccines, such as the flu vaccine.

    Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.