Many parents fear the worst when their child is diagnosed with a heart murmur, but this diagnosis is actually extremely common. In fact, many kids are found to have a heart murmur at some point during their lives. Most murmurs are not a cause for concern and do not affect the child's health at all.
What exactly is a heart murmur? By itself, the term heart murmur isn't a diagnosis of an illness or disorder. To better understand what it does mean, it's important to know how the heart works.
How the Heart Works
The normal heart has four chambers and four valves (which function like one-way doors). The two lower pumping chambers of the heart are called the ventricles, and the two upper filling chambers are the atria (singular is atrium).
Here's how blood moves in normal circulation:
- Blood that returns from the body to the filling chamber on the right side (the right atrium) is low in oxygen.
- This blood passes across a valve (the tricuspid valve) to the pumping chamber on the right side (the right ventricle) and then travels across the pulmonary valve to the lungs to receive oxygen.
- The oxygen-enriched blood returns to the filling chamber on the left side (the left atrium), then across a valve (the mitral valve) to the pumping chamber on the left side (the left ventricle).
- The blood is then pumped across the aortic valve out to the body through the aorta, a large blood vessel that carries blood to the smaller blood vessels in the body to deliver oxygen.
Using a stethoscope, a doctor examines the heart by listening to the sounds it makes. The familiar "lub-dub" sound of a normal heartbeat is caused by the closing sound of the valves as the heart squeezes to push blood through the body.
A heart murmur describes an extra sound in addition to the "lub-dub." Sometimes these extra sounds are simply the sound of normal blood flow moving through a normal heart. Other times, a murmur may be a sign of a heart problem.
Diagnosing a Heart Murmur
A murmur is heard during the heart listening exam, using a stethoscope held at different areas on the front of the chest as the heart beats. Heart murmurs can be heard in infants as well as older kids and teens.
Of course, if the child is crying, uncooperative to the examiner, or breathing loudly, it might not be possible to hear a murmur. It helps if the child is quiet when the doctor listens, since some heart murmurs are very soft. The doctor may have a parent help by calming the child or having the child sit in the parent's lap during the exam.
Heart murmurs are rated on a scale from 1 to 6 in intensity (loudness). Grade 1 is barely audible, whereas grade 6 is very loud. The doctor will note where on the chest the murmur is best heard, the characteristics of the murmur (for example, whether it's harsh and high-frequency or soft and blowing), where it occurs in the heartbeat cycle, and whether it changes when your child changes position. After this initial discovery, the doctor may refer your child to a pediatric cardiologist for further evaluation.
It's not unusual for a murmur to be noticed during a checkup, even though none was heard before. Innocent murmurs tend to come and go, depending on a child's heart rate, position during the exam, and the presence of fever. Some new murmurs might be a sign of a newly developed heart problem. And some heart problems present from birth (congenital heart problems) at first might not be severe enough to cause a murmur that can be detected during an exam.
Because of the common misconception that all heart murmurs are serious, it's important for parents to understand which type of murmur their child has and if it needs further evaluation.
What's an Innocent Murmur?
The most common type of heart murmur is called functional or innocent. This diagnosis means the murmur is produced by a normal, healthy heart. It can come and go throughout childhood. It usually goes away on its own as the child gets older and doesn't pose any health threat.
Kids with innocent heart murmurs don't require a special diet, restriction of activities, or any other special treatment. They do not need to take a dose of antibiotic before going to the dentist. Those old enough to understand that they have a heart murmur should be reassured that they aren't any different from other kids.
In other words, an innocent murmur is the sound of normal blood moving through a normal heart in a normal way. Just as we can sometimes hear the sound of air moving in an air duct or water flowing through a plumbing pipe, we can often hear the sound of blood moving through the heart even if there is not a heart problem.
Congenital Heart Defects
Some murmurs can indicate a problem with the heart. If the doctor suspects something other than an innocent heart murmur, your child will see a pediatric cardiologist, who might order or perform additional tests, such as a chest X-ray, an EKG (an electrocardiogram), or an echocardiogram. An echocardiogram, or "echo," is an ultrasound picture of the heart structures (chambers, walls, and valves). It records the motion of the blood through the heart and can measure the direction and speed of blood flow within the heart structures.
About 1 out of every 100 babies is born with a structural heart problem, or congenital heart defect. These babies may show signs of their defect as early as the first few days of life or they may appear completely healthy until later in childhood. Some kids won't show any symptoms beyond a heart murmur, while others will have symptoms that could be mistaken for other illnesses or disorders.
Symptoms of a significant heart defect in newborns and infants can include:
- rapid breathing
- difficulty feeding
- blueness in the lips (called cyanosis)
- failure to thrive
Symptoms in an older child or adolescent may be:
- difficulty exercising or doing physical activity
- chest pain
Contact your doctor if you notice any of these symptoms.
Congenital heart defects can be seen in chromosomal disorders such as trisomy 21 (Down syndrome) or might be associated with specific gene abnormalities. Babies with other birth defects may also have heart defects. Exposure to certain chemicals, including alcohol, or medications before birth can be associated with congenital heart disease.
While some parents may have more than one child with a heart defect, most heart defects aren't considered to be hereditary. In most cases, however, children with congenital heart defects have no known risk factors.
Maternal health also plays a role. At a higher risk of having a baby with a heart defect are pregnant women who:
- contract rubella (German measles)
- have uncontrolled or poorly regulated diabetes
- have PKU (phenylketonuria, a genetic error of the body's metabolism)
Common Heart Defects
Several different categories of heart problems can cause heart murmurs. These include septal defects, valve abnormalities, abnormalities of flow between the heart chambers and the exits (outflow tract obstruction), and heart muscle disorders.
- Septal defects involve the walls (or septum) between the upper or lower chambers of the heart. A hole in the septum can result in blood flowing through it into the heart's other chambers. This extra blood flow may cause a murmur. It can also make the heart work too hard and may cause the heart to enlarge. Some holes can be large enough to produce symptoms in addition to a heart murmur; others are smaller and may close on their own in time.
- Valve abnormalities are caused by heart valves that are narrow, too small, too thick, or otherwise abnormal. Valves that are misshapen don't allow smooth blood flow across them, and this creates turbulent flow. Sometimes, abnormal valves may allow backflow of blood within the heart. Either condition will cause a murmur. Outflow tract obstruction might be caused by extra tissue or heart muscle that blocks the smooth flow of blood through the heart.
- Heart muscle disorders (cardiomyopathy) can make the heart muscle abnormally thick or weak. This can impair the heart's ability to pump blood to the body normally.
A heart murmur is an exam finding, not a disease. Your doctor and pediatric cardiologist can determine if the murmur is innocent (which means your child is perfectly healthy) or if there is a specific heart problem. If there is a problem, a pediatric cardiologist will know how to best take care of it.
Reviewed by: Steven B. Ritz, MD
Date reviewed: August 2010