Pediatric heart disease can be divided into two distinct groups. These are congenital defects, which are present at birth, and acquired illnesses that occur sometime during childhood. The first group is larger and more common than the second.
A number of errors may occur as the heart forms, resulting in congenital heart defects. The compromised area of the heart, which may include the septum, valves, and the ventricles, often differentiates the pediatric heart disease that is present at birth. In many instances, multiple defects affect several parts of the heart.
Septal defects mean that there are holes between the right and left side of the heart that allow blood to flow between its chambers. Some children have a single hole. Others may have multiple communications between the two sides in either or both the ventricles and the atria.
Alternately, pediatric heart disease may be expressed with defects in one or more of the four valves of the heart. The interior valves, called the mitral and tricuspid valves, may be misshapen or insufficient, causing the heart to have abnormal blood flow from the atria to the ventricles. Another possibility is that the aortic and pulmonary valves, which are attached to the ventricles, may be too small, preventing natural blood flow or causing leakage. Additionally, sometimes the aorta and pulmonary artery are attached to the wrong ventricle, which is called transposition of the great arteries.
Ventricular pediatric heart disease often means the ventricles are too small to support heart function. Hypoplastic right and left heart both necessitate numerous palliative surgeries. A variant of this defect occurs when only a single ventricle exists that is undivided by a septum.
Some congenital defects are not problematic at birth, such as bicuspid aortic valve or malformations of the mitral valve. They may not even be noticed in childhood, but could cause trouble later in life. These are still considered congenital, as opposed to acquired, because they arose from defects that occurred as the heart developed.
Congenital defects contrast with acquired pediatric heart disease. Typically, children develop these types of heart disease by getting an infection that targets the heart. The most common causes of infectious heart damage in childhood are rheumatic fever and Kawasaki syndrome.
Rheumatic fever is caused by strep infections, such as those that affect the throat, which invade the heart and create damage. This form of heart disease is rare in developed countries because strep throat is usually treated in early stages. Unfortunately, the condition remains a significant problem in developing countries, where access to medical care and antibiotics is limited.
Kawasaki syndrome is a rare and mystifying disorder, which may be caused by a virus. Occasionally, this condition damages the heart valves or results in cardiac inflammation. Though this only occurs infrequently, the coronary arteries may also become severely damaged during the course of the illness, resulting in fatality.