What is Heart Failure in Children?

What is Heart Failure in Children?

Pediatric heart failure occurs when the heart can’t pump blood to the rest of the body effectively. Also referred to as pediatric congestive heart failure, this condition can affect either side of the heart and causes blood to get backed up in the blood vessels.

Depending on the cause of the heart failure, there may be no cure for the condition, but for an infant or child with heart failure, there are treatments available that can help keep symptoms under control.

Types of Heart Failure in Children


A congenital heart defect is often the cause of congestive heart failure in infants and children. The condition can develop in different parts of the child’s heart, resulting in blood flow congestion and fluid buildup in the lungs and body.

There are different types of congestive heart failure in pediatric patients, including:

  • Left-sided heart failure - The left chamber of your heart is the body’s primary pumping chamber, responsible for pumping oxygen-rich blood to the entire body, including all of the organs. Heart failure in infants and children occurs when the left ventricle no longer pumps enough blood throughout the body. Generally, most cases of heart failure begin with the left chamber.
  • Right-sided heart failure - The right chamber of your heart pumps blood to the lungs, where the blood gets oxygen. Right-sided heart failure is usually the result of left-sided heart failure. Left-sided heart failure can cause a build-up of pressure in the lungs, which can then damage the heart’s right side.

Signs & Symptoms of Heart Failure in Children


In some cases, there may be no early signs of heart failure in infants and small children. Each child can develop different heart failure symptoms and experience them over varying periods of time. Often times, pediatric patients can have poor heart function and become symptomatic when the body is put under stress during an infection or other illness.

Here are some of the most common symptoms of pediatric heart failure:

  • Difficulty or abnormally fast breathing
  • Swelling (edema) of the eyelids, face, legs, ankles, or abdomen
  • Poor or slow growth
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty feeding
  • Weight loss
  • Weight gain over a short period due to fluid retention
  • Chest pain
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Developmental delays
  • Tendency to become clammy and cold, or suddenly warm, sweaty, and flushed

Major symptoms of heart failure in babies include feeding difficulties, fast breathing, and poor weight gain, whereas older patients such as teenagers may have fatigue or exercise intolerance. A pediatric heart specialist can help diagnose and treat the condition.

Some signs of adult heart failure can differ from heart failure symptoms in children.

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What Causes Heart Failure in Children?


The most common cause of pediatric heart failure is a congenital heart defect (present from birth). Other medical issues that can cause heart failure may include:

  • Cardiomyopathy, a heart muscle problem often described as an enlarged heart
  • Heart valve disease
  • Arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats)
  • Viral infections
  • Bacterial infections
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Chronic lung disease
  • Anemia
  • Overactive thyroid

Risk Factors

Risk Factors

A congenital heart defect and the conditions listed above can all raise the risk factors of heart failure in children and teens. Other factors may include:

  • Genetics - Congestive heart failure can be passed on from family members
  • Diabetes – Diabetes can elevate the risk of pediatric heart failure
  • Certain medications - Medications, especially from certain chemotherapy drugs, can increase the risk of developing the condition
  • Surgical procedures - Some postoperative complications can raise the risk of heart failure



Heart failure in children and teenagers can result in the following complications:

  • Damage to other vital organs, such as the liver or kidney
  • Blood clots
  • Heart valve issues
  • Arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats)
  • Poor development or growth
  • Pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the vessels between the lungs and heart)



There is no guaranteed way to prevent heart failure in children, especially if they are born with congenital heart defects or other conditions. The focus of heart failure prevention is to treat underlying health issues or infections and to maintain healthy habits, including:

  • Congenital heart disease treatments - May involve medication or surgery
  • Preventing heart muscle infections - Bacteria, viruses, and fungi can be treated with antibiotics and other medications to protect the heart
  • Preventing rheumatic heart disease - An infection such as strep throat can lead to rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever can cause permanent damage to the heart valves and elevate the risk for heart failure.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight and diet – Nutritious foods and regular exercise can help keep the heart healthy
Get Care

Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Pediatric Heart Failure Care

If your child or teenager is experiencing symptoms of heart failure, it’s essential to have them evaluated as soon as possible. NewYork-Presbyterian is home to world-renowned doctors and specialists who can provide an expert diagnosis and innovative treatment plan for your child.

Reach out to us today for an appointment with a pediatric heart specialist.