Atrial Septal Defect

An atrial septal defect (ASD) — sometimes called a hole in the heart — is a type of congenital heart defect. It is an abnormal opening in the wall between the atria, the upper filling chambers of the heart.

Through the hole in the heart, blood from the left atrium can flow into the right atrium. This increases the amount of blood flowing toward the lungs. The increased blood flow to the lungs creates a swishing sound, known as a heart murmur. The murmur, along with other specific heart sounds, often is a doctor’s first clue that a child has an ASD.

The specialists at Norton Children’s Heart Institute, affiliated with the University of Louisville, are able to diagnose and treat ASDs successfully with few or no complications.

As leading providers of pediatric heart care in Louisville and Southern Indiana, our specialists are experienced with successfully repairing atrial septal defects or identifying when the condition will resolve itself as your child grows.

The board-certified and fellowship-trained specialists at Norton Children’s Heart Institute have the skill and experience to provide a pinpoint diagnosis and develop a customized treatment plan for you and your child.

An illustration of atrial septal defect

What Causes a Hole in the Heart?

Children who have an ASD are born with it. The defect happens while the heart is developing during pregnancy. The heart develops from a large tube. The tube divides into sections that will eventually become the walls and chambers of the heart. If something goes wrong during this process, a hole can form in the wall (septum) that separates the left atrium from the right atrium.

In some cases, the tendency to develop an ASD might be inherited. Genetic syndromes can cause extra or missing pieces of chromosomes that can be associated with ASDs. Most ASDs, though, have no clear cause. It’s also not clear why ASDs are more common in girls than in boys.

Atrial Septal Defect Symptoms

The size and location of an ASD determine the symptoms it causes. Most kids who have ASDs seem healthy and appear to have no symptoms. Most feel well, and grow and gain weight normally.

Children with larger, more severe ASDs might experience:

  • Poor appetite
  • Poor growth
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lung issues and infections, such as pneumonia

An ASD that isn’t treated in childhood can lead to health issues later, including an abnormal heart rhythm (atrial arrhythmia) and the heart having difficulty pumping blood.

Norton Children’s Heart Institute physicians will evaluate the ASD to determine if it needs to be fixed surgically. If surgery is necessary, they usually recommend having it done early in childhood.

Atrial Septal Defect Diagnosis

A doctor who suspects that a child has atrial septal defect may refer the child to a pediatric cardiologist.

The cardiologist might order one or more of these tests:

  • Chest X-ray: An image of the heart and surrounding organs
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG): A record of the heart’s electrical activity
  • Echocardiogram: An ultrasound video of the heart and the blood flow through its chambers; this test often is the main tool used to diagnose an ASD

Atrial Septal Defect Treatment

Treatment will depend on a child’s age and the size, location and severity of the defect.

Norton Children’s Heart Institute specialists may determine that a very small ASD doesn’t need treatment and will close on its own. In these cases, the cardiologist may recommend follow-up visits for observation.

Usually, if an ASD hasn’t closed on its own by the time a child starts school, the cardiologist will recommend fixing the hole, either with cardiac catheterization or heart surgery.

What Else Should I Know?

In the weeks after surgery or cardiac catheterization, the cardiologist will check on your child’s progress. Your child might have another echocardiogram to confirm the hole in the heart has closed completely.

Most kids recover from treatment quickly and will need only regular follow-up visits with their cardiologist. You might even notice that within a few weeks your child is eating more and is more active.

However, some signs and symptoms are causes for concern. If your child is having trouble breathing, call the doctor or go to the emergency room immediately.

Also call the doctor if your child has any of these symptoms:

  • A bluish color around the mouth or on the lips and tongue
  • Poor appetite or difficulty feeding
  • Failure to gain weight or weight loss
  • Listlessness or decreased activity
  • A lasting or unexplained fever
  • Increasing pain, tenderness or pus oozing from the surgery site

Having your child diagnosed with a heart condition can be scary. Your child’s pediatric cardiologist will be very familiar with ASDs and how best to manage the condition. Most kids who’ve had an ASD corrected go on to live healthy, active lives.

Why Norton Children’s Heart Institute?

Norton Children’s Heart Institute, affiliated with the University of Louisville, is a comprehensive pediatric heart surgery, heart failure and heart transplant program serving Kentucky, Southern Indiana and beyond.

The goal of the full-service Norton Children’s Heart Institute is to provide care for the child and the whole family. Our specialists are prepared to repair even the most complex congenital and acquired heart conditions.

Our heart team includes:

  • Pediatric cardiothoracic surgeons
  • Pediatric transplant surgeons
  • Pediatric cardiologists
    • Fetal cardiologists
    • Adult congenital heart cardiologists
    • Heart failure/heart transplant cardiologists
    • Pediatric electrophysiologists
    • Pediatric cardiac catheterization cardiologists
  • Pediatric cardiovascular anesthesiologists
  • Pediatric intensive care physicians
  • Cardiac critical care nurses
  • Critical care pharmacists
  • Family support team
  • Child life specialists
  • Rehabilitation specialists
  • Social workers
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