What is pulmonary hypertension in children?
Pulmonary hypertension (PH) is high blood pressure in the blood vessels that carry blood from the heart to the lungs. These blood vessels are called pulmonary arteries.
Pulmonary: to do with your lungs
Hypertension: high blood pressure
This is a rare and serious condition. It is quite different from ‘high blood pressure’ when the blood pressure has been measured with a cuff on the arm or leg. Pulmonary hypertension causes damage to the heart and lungs, which can get worse as time goes by. So it’s important for it to be diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.
Blood flow in the lungs
The blood vessels that supply the lungs are called the pulmonary arteries.
In children with pulmonary hypertension, the pressure in the pulmonary artery rises and this means blood can’t move so easily through these blood vessels. The heart has to work harder to pump blood through. Over time, it struggles with this extra work, making your child feel breathless.
Many children with pulmonary hypertension have another medical condition that causes problems with their pulmonary arteries, heart or lungs. Possible causes of pulmonary hypertension include:
- heart problems, such as a leaky heart valve
- problems with lung growth and development, and associated lung conditions like bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD)
- faulty genes.
Sometimes there is no obvious cause, despite your child having lots of tests to try and find one. This is called idiopathic pulmonary hypertension.
Pulmonary hypertension and heart problems
In children, pulmonary hypertension is often associated with heart problems.
The heart has two pumping chambers, called ventricles. The left ventricle pumps blood throughout your body. The right ventricle pumps blood through the lungs.
If there are problems with the left side of your child’s heart, the right side may have to work harder to pump blood through their lungs. This increases pressure in the arteries in the lungs.
You can see this explained in more detail in this lungs and heart diagram.
Pulmonary hypertension is very rare. It’s less common in children than it is in adults. In Europe, fewer than 10 children in a million are diagnosed with sustained (long term) pulmonary hypertension each year.
Newborn babies, young children and teenagers can all be affected by pulmonary hypertension.
The main symptom of pulmonary hypertension is breathlessness. Other symptoms of pulmonary hypertension may include:
- swollen ankles
- difficulty putting on weight.
These symptoms are common in other childhood conditions and not unique to pulmonary hypertension. Because pulmonary hypertension is so rare, unfortunately this means that it can take the doctors some time to work out the real cause of symptoms and make a diagnosis of pulmonary hypertension. For example, pulmonary hypertension may be initially misdiagnosed as asthma.