Cardiac arrhythmia in children is not something you want to ignore.
That said, you don’t need to panic necessarily.
As a parent, seeing your child struggle with arrhythmia can be scary. However, many heart conditions, while potentially causing some fear or discomfort, can be relatively benign.
Yes, it is true, that some heart conditions can cause sudden death in young people. We have all heard the stories of the young athletes who suddenly died on the football field after appearing to be healthy.
Fortunately, these cases are quite rare.
What is Arrhythmia?
The simple definition of arrhythmia is an abnormal or irregular heart rhythm.
According to MedicineNet.com: “In an arrhythmia the heartbeats may be too slow, too rapid, too irregular, or too early. Rapid arrhythmias (greater than 100 beats per minute) are called tachycardias. Slow arrhythmias (slower than 60 beats per minute) are called bradycardias. Irregular heart rhythms are called fibrillations (as in atrial fibrillation and ventricular fibrillation). When a single heartbeat occurs earlier than normal, it is called a premature contraction.”
Cardiac arrhythmia in children can take on multiple forms, from an irregular heartbeat to tachycardia. It can also be due to various underlying conditions, some genetic, and some acquired.
Not all arrhythmias are bad. For example, a sinus arrhythmia is a normal variation in the heartbeat. It is actually common among healthy, young individuals and occurs due to normal reflex changes in the respiratory cycle.
As people get older, they are less likely to have sinus arrhythmia simply because age reduces the sensitivity of the body’s reflexes.
What Causes Cardiac Arrhythmias in Children?
Many heart arrhythmia issues are genetic. For example, Wolff Parkinson Syndrome is a genetic heart condition that is due to an extra electrical pathway in the heart, which can cause a rapid heart rate.
Another common genetic heart condition is Long QT Syndrome. This condition is caused by a number of different genes, although it can also sometimes be developed due to side effects of medications.
Long QT Syndrome (LQTS) is a dysfunction in the amount of time the heart takes to electrically recharge after each heartbeat. It is usually something that can be managed, but, on rare occasions, LQTS can cause sudden death. This is one of the heart conditions that can be very dangerous for young people if it is acute and not treated.
Acquired Heart Conditions
While it is likely that a child with an arrhythmia problem has a genetic condition, children can also develop acquired heart conditions just like adults can.
This is becoming less likely in the developed world due to antibiotics and other medications. (However, it is worth noting that even some antibiotics can cause heart conditions in certain individuals as a side effect.) Antibiotics can be important, as children are at risk for developing heart conditions if they come down with a serious infection.
One such disease is scarlet fever. It was one of the leading causes of death of children in the early part of the 20th century. Scarlet fever is caused by the same bacteria that cause strep throat. If Scarlet Fever is not treated or doesn’t respond to antibiotics, it can develop into rheumatic fever, which can damage the heart.
What are the Symptoms of Arrhythmias in Children?
Symptoms of arrhythmias in children can vary in severity. No matter how mild, however, you should consult with a pediatrician if you suspect your child has a heart condition.
Symptoms can include dizziness, fainting, shortness of breath, chest pain, or (of course) a rapid heartbeat.
Babies can also have heart conditions such as Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) Syndrome, which can give them an ashen color, stir up restlessness, or cause a low appetite. Quick, shallow breathing may also indicate a heart condition.
One important symptom to not overlook is a seizure. Seizures can sometimes be misdiagnosed as an indication of epilepsy, but they can also be due to a heart condition.
How are Children’s Arrhythmias Treated?
Since arrhythmias have a variety of causes, some genetic and some not, no one-size-fits all cure is available. Some children might be simply taught lifestyle strategies, while others might be put on medication. Older children can be taught vagal maneuvers, which are simple practices that slow the heart rate such as putting cold water on the face or purposefully coughing.
Talk to a Doctor if You Suspect Your Child Has Cardiac Arrhythmia
While there’s no need to panic if you suspect your child has a heart condition, you should consult with a doctor right away if your child expresses any symptoms. The good news is that even with some of the more severe cases (such as with Long QT Syndrome), doctors often have ways to prevent serious complications and death. With proper medical treatment and support, your child should live a long and healthy life.