Health Problems Related to Down Syndrome

Certain health problems are more likely to develop in people who have Down syndrome than in the general population. These are often a result of body structures that did not develop normally.

Your child with Down syndrome may never have any of these problems even though he or she is at increased risk.

Common health problems include:

  • Heart disease. About half of children with Down syndrome have heart defects at birth. These defects may need early treatment to prevent heart failure.
  • Respiratory infections. Children with Down syndrome are prone to respiratory infections and persistent fluid in the middle ear. Some children also have an impaired immune system, which makes it hard for them to fight off infections. Respiratory infection can lead to serious problems, especially in children who also have heart defects.
  • Hearing, eye, and dental problems. Hearing problems can affect listening skills and language development. Eye problems can range from mild to severe. Gum disease (periodontal disease) is more common in people with Down syndrome, especially adults, than the general population.
  • Seizures. Although the cause is unknown, seizures occur more often in people who have Down syndrome than in the general population.
  • Sleep problems. Down syndrome causes some children to have sleep problems, such as sleep apnea or frequent waking and restlessness.
  • Unstable joints, poor muscle strength, and weak ligaments. These things increase the risk of spinal problems and neck injury, especially dislocation of the first two neck bones (atlantoaxial dislocation). Foot problems are also more common in people who have Down syndrome than in the general population, probably because of loose ligaments.
  • Skin problems. Skin conditions that can affect teens with Down syndrome include dry skin, acne, folliculitis, atopic dermatitis, and fungal infections of the skin and nails.
  • Digestive system problems. Constipation and intestinal blockages can develop because of poor muscle tone (hypotonia). Celiac disease, which is an inability to break down gluten protein, sometimes develops and requires a special diet.

Children and adults who have Down syndrome may not be able to tell you or the doctor if they don't feel well or are in pain. Instead, their behavior may change. Or they may stop doing things that they used to do. These may be signs of a medical problem. Talk to the doctor if you notice that the person with Down syndrome behaves in a new way. Also be alert for signs of depression, anxiety, or other mental or behavioral health problems.

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer John Pope, MD - Pediatrics
Specialist Medical Reviewer Louis Pellegrino, MD - Developmental Pediatrics
Last Revised July 1, 2013

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