What Is Congestive Heart Failure?

Heart failure (also called congestive heart failure) occurs when the heart is not able to pump enough blood to the other organs in the body. The heart continues to beat, but it pumps a smaller amount of blood. When the blood cannot move forward, it causes a back-up and collects in the lungs, veins and liver.

The effects of heart failure vary, depending on which part of the heart is affected. Heart failure can affect the right side, the left side, or both sides of the heart.

When the right side of the heart is affected, the heart cannot effectively pump blood into the lungs, and a back-up of blood accumulates in the liver and veins. This can cause fluid retention and you may notice swelling in your child’s face, eyelids, legs, ankles or abdomen.

Heart failure that affects the left side of the heart can strain the rest of the body, including the lungs. When the heart cannot pump blood out to the other organs, the blood backs up in the vessels of the lungs, causing lung congestion. Children may experience difficulty breathing and may breathe faster. Because blood is not efficiently reaching the rest of the body, children often become fatigued (tired) and may have a decreased rate of growth.

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What Are the Symptoms of Heart Failure?

Children suffering from heart failure may show some of the following signs:

  • Fast breathing
  • Shortness of breath, heavy breathing or labored breathing
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Swelling of the face, eyelids, legs, ankles or abdomen
  • Nausea, vomiting or abdominal pain
  • Falling asleep while eating
  • Decreased appetite
  • Cough and/or lung congestion
  • Excessive sweating
  • Slow growth or poor weight gain

What Are the Causes of Heart Failure?

There are 2 main causes of heart failure in children:

Congenital (present at birth) heart defects

There are several different types of congenital heart defects that cause heart failure. These defects include structural problems that prevent the blood from moving through the heart efficiently. Instead, the blood has to move through alternative pathways, which results in a smaller amount of blood reaching the other organs.

Myocardium (heart muscle) thickening

When the muscle material in the heart thickens, it does not function well. A thick muscle reduces the amount of blood the heart can pump. When this happens, the heart cannot supply the body with enough blood to function properly.

How Is Heart Failure Diagnosed?

If your child is experiencing symptoms of heart failure, or if the physician notices something abnormal during a physical exam, they may recommend additional testing. Sometimes the physician may hear extra sounds, called a heart murmur, when they listen to your child’s heart with a stethoscope.

The following tests may be used:

Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG)

Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) is a painless exam that checks the heart’s electrical activity. The exam can detect damage or irregular heart rhythms that may indicate the right ventricle is not functioning properly.

Chest X-rays

These images are used to look at the heart and lungs. If the right side of the heart is enlarged, it may indicate an atrial septal defect (ASD), which is a hole in the wall between the two upper chambers of the heart.


Sound waves are used to produce images of the heart and vessels on a computer screen. This exam can determine whether or not the heart is pumping properly. It can also identify an atrial septal defect (ASD).

Cardiac Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

This exam uses radio waves, magnets and a computer to create three-dimensional images of the heart. It can reveal structural abnormalities, like an enlarged right ventricle, that can be caused by an atrial septal defect (ASD).

Cardiac Catheterization

Thin, long tubes are inserted into blood vessels and guided into the heart, with the help of fluoroscopy (X-ray), to look for abnormalities.

How Is Heart Failure Treated?

Treatment for heart failure depends on the severity of the condition. Many children with mild heart failure can be managed with medications and live normal lives. More advanced cases of heart failure may require a hospital stay with IV medications to support the heart.

When a child has severe heart failure, they may require a life-saving procedure. One option is a heart transplant. Another option is a Ventricular Assist Device (VAD), which is a mechanical pump to help the heart pump blood to the rest of the body.

The Children’s Heart Institute at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital specializes in all levels of treatment for congestive heart failure, from mild to severe. Our heart-transplant and VAD teams are prepared to care for your child’s long-term needs so they can live a better life.

Why Choose the Children’s Heart Institute?

At Children’s Heart Institute at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, patients with congenital or acquired heart disorders receive hands-on specialized care 24/7 from a team of affiliated physicians and specialty-trained nurses who aim to deliver the best possible outcomes.

Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital was named one of the top 25 best children's hospitals nationally in Cardiology & Heart Surgery by U.S. News & World Report. In addition, Children’s Heart Institute is among the elite top 6% of congenital heart surgery programs in the Unites States and Canada for patient care and outcomes, according to the Fall 2019 Society of Thoracic Surgeons (STS) Congenital Heart Surgery Database Report of 118 STS participating programs.

In collaboration with various subspecialties, the affiliated team provides comprehensive care for newborns, children and adolescents, with the ability to transition into adult congenital cardiac care. Team members have the experience and skills necessary to offer innovative treatment methods and specialized services, including, but not limited to:

  • Biventricular repairs and biventricular conversions
  • Congenital heart optimization
  • Full repairs for complex congenital heart defects in newborns
  • Hybrid catheterization and surgical procedures
  • Minimally invasive transcatheter pulmonary valve (TPV) therapy
  • Minimally invasive repairs
  • Treatment for adult congenital heart disease
  • Valve repairs and preservation

With the Level IV Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and a dedicated Children’s Heart Institute Intensive Care Unit at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, critical heart patients have access to quality, specialized care. By utilizing state-of-the-art techniques, the team at Children’s Heart Institute strives to offer patients with the most complex problems the greatest opportunity for a normal life.

Contact Us

If you have any questions, use the online tool below to help us connect with you. To refer a patient or schedule an appointment, please contact our clinic using the information below.

  • Pediatric Cardiology Clinic
    The University of Texas Health Science Center Professional Building
    6410 Fannin, Suite 370
    Houston, TX 77030
    Phone: (713) 486-6755 (Appointment Line)
  • Pediatric and Congenital Heart Surgery Clinic
    The University of Texas Health Science Center Professional Building
    6410 Fannin, Suite 370
    Houston, TX 77030
    Phone: (713) 500-5746

To contact Children’s Heart Institute at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, please fill out the form below.


Thank you for contacting the Children’s Heart Institute at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. We have received your inquiry, and a team member will contact you soon.

If you need more immediate assistance, please call us during business hours at (713) 486-6755.

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The Children’s Heart Institute is a collaboration between the affiliated physicians at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth Houston) and Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. Typically, patients are seen on an outpatient basis at a UT Physicians clinic with all inpatient procedures performed at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital.