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Patent Ductus Arteriosus (PDA)

The ductus arteriosus (DA) is a normal blood vessel that connects two major arteries — the aorta and the pulmonary artery — that carry blood away from the heart in a developing fetus. The DA diverts blood away from the lungs, sending it directly to the body.

The lungs are not used while a fetus is in the amniotic fluid because the baby gets oxygen directly from the mother's placenta. When a newborn breathes and begins to use the lungs, the DA is no longer needed and usually closes during the first 2 days after birth.

But when the DA fails to close, a condition called patent (meaning "open") ductus arteriosus (PDA) results, in which oxygen-rich blood from the aorta is allowed to mix with oxygen-poor blood in the pulmonary artery. As a result, too much blood flows into the lungs, which puts a strain on the heart and increases blood pressure in the pulmonary arteries.

Causes

The cause of PDA is not known, but genetics might play a role. PDA is more common in premature babies and affects twice as many girls as boys. It's also common among babies with neonatal respiratory distress syndrome, babies with genetic disorders (such as Down syndrome), and babies whose mothers had German measles (rubella) during pregnancy.

In the vast majority of babies with a PDA but an otherwise normal heart, the PDA will shrink and go away on its own in the first few days of life. Some PDAs that don't close then will close on their own by the time the child is a year old.

In premature infants, the PDA is more likely to stay open, particularly if the baby has lung disease. When this happens, treatment to close the PDA might be considered.

In infants born with additional heart defects that decrease blood flow from the heart to the lungs or decrease the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the body, the PDA could actually be beneficial and the doctor might prescribe medicine to keep the ductus arteriosus open.

Symptoms and Tests

Babies with a large PDA might experience symptoms such as:

  • a bounding (strong and forceful) pulse
  • fast breathing
  • poor feeding habits
  • shortness of breath
  • sweating while feeding
  • tiring very easily
  • poor growth

If a PDA is suspected, the doctor will use a stethoscope to listen for a heart murmur, which is often heard in babies with PDAs. Follow-up tests might include:

  • a chest X-ray
  • an EKG, a test that measures the heart's electrical activity and can show if the heart is enlarged
  • an echocardiogram, a test that uses sound waves to diagnose heart problems. These waves bounce off parts of the heart, creating a picture of the heart that is shown on a monitor. In babies with PDA, an echo shows how big the opening is and how well the heart is handling it.

Treatment

The three treatment options for PDA are medication, catheter-based procedures, and surgery. A doctor will close a PDA if the size of the opening is large enough that the lungs could become overloaded with blood, a condition that can lead to an enlarged heart.

A PDA also might be closed to reduce the risk of developing a heart infection known as endocarditis, which affects the tissue lining the heart and blood vessels. Endocarditis is serious and requires treatment with intravenous (IV) antibiotics.

Reviewed by: Gina Baffa, MD
Date reviewed: February 2012