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CHF in children
Congestive heart failure is a condition in which the heart cannot adequately pump blood. Because the pumping action of the heart is reduced, blood backs up into certain body tissues, causing fluid build up.
What is going on in the body?
Congestive heart failure is caused by a variety of complex problems that cause the pumping chambers of the heart to fail.
The heart is divided into a left heart and a right heart. The blood receives oxygen as it passes through the lungs. The left heart receives blood from the lungs and pumps this oxygen-rich blood to the organs, muscles, and tissues of the body. The right heart receives oxygen-poor blood from these organs and tissues. It then pumps it to the lungs to receive a fresh supply of oxygen.
If the pumping chambers of the heart do not function properly, blood stays in the lungs or in the tissues of the body. This leads to congestion of these areas with blood and fluid, the reason for the term congestive heart failure. The organs and tissues do not receive an adequate supply of blood, and they begin to suffer the effects.
What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?
Most of the time, congestive heart failure occurs quickly in children. Failure of both ventricles is common. This causes a combination of symptoms, including: What are the causes and risks of the condition?
The most common cause of congestive heart failure in children is congenital heart disease, including: Other causes of congestive heart failure in children include:
What can be done to prevent the condition?
- rheumatic heart disease, caused by damage to the heart from group A strep infections
- bacterial endocarditis, or inflammation of the lining of the heart due to an infection
- myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle
- complications of open heart surgery
- chronic anaemia, which results in a low red blood cell count
- poor nutrition
- drug toxicity
Prompt treatment of the underlying disease can lower the child's risk of developing congestive heart failure. Maintaining a healthy body weight, including physical activity in everyday life, and eating a diet designed to minimise heart disease can help minimise congestive heart failure.
How is the condition diagnosed?
Congestive heart failure is diagnosed on the basis of the child's medical history and physical examination. Identification of the underlying disease may require special tests, including:
What are the long-term effects of the condition?
- electrocardiogram, or ECG, which graphs the electrical activity of the heart
- chest X-ray, which may reveal an abnormally enlarged heart
- echocardiography, which uses ultrasound waves to provide information about the structure, function, and motion of the heart
- cardiac catheterisation, which involves injection of a contrast agent to allow the doctor to watch the blood flow through the heart and its arteries
If untreated, congestive heart failure in children can lead to early death. Long-term effects may include delays in the child's development and permanent damage to organs such as the brain, liver, and kidneys.
What are the risks to others?
Congestive heart failure is not contagious and poses no risk to others.
What are the treatments for the condition?
Congestive heart failure in children can sometimes be diagnosed when the baby is still in the womb. If this is the case, the mother can be treated with medications and water pills. This may help lessen the effect on the baby.
After the baby is born, general treatment measures will include giving oxygen, limiting sodium in the diet, and treating underlying anaemia. A heart medication called digitalis can be used to help improve the efficiency of the heart. Water pills help relieve some of the pressure on the heart by removing extra fluid.
In severe cases, stronger heart medications can be used to help the heart pump with more forceful contractions. Medications that relax the blood vessels can also be used. If the cause of CHF is congenital heart disease, open heart surgery may be done.
What are the side effects of the treatments?
Heart medications used in the treatment of CHF can have serious side effects. Digitalis must be used carefully to avoid toxic effects. Water pills can cause excessive dehydration and salt imbalances. Surgery can cause bleeding, infection, and allergic reactions to anaesthesia.
What happens after treatment for the condition?
Treatment of the underlying condition often eliminates the congestive heart failure. If a structural defect is the cause of the CHF, open heart surgery can restore normal blood flow in the body. However in some cases, long-term medical treatment is required.
Once the acute medical problem is resolved, a child with congestive heart failure should be encouraged to reduce coronary risk factors. This may include control of other diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure, as well as eating a healthy diet for heart disease.
How is the condition monitored?
Monitoring varies, depending on the underlying cause of the congestive heart failure. Blood tests, such as a FBC or full blood count, can track the treatment of anaemia. Kidney function tests and liver function tests help to detect any damage from medications used to treat CHF. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the health care doctor.
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request