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Fallot's tetralogy

Medical Professionals

Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find one of our health articles more useful.

Synonyms: tetralogy of Fallot, TOF

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What is Fallot's tetralogy?

Fallot's tetralogy (TOF) is the most common form of cyanotic congenital heart disease in children who survive beyond their first month.

The original definition consists of four main anatomical features: a large ventricular septal defect (anterior malaligned), overriding aorta, right ventricular outflow obstruction and right ventricular hypertrophy.1 However, the two key abnormalities are:

  • A large ventricular septal defect, which allows the pressures in the two ventricles to become equal.

  • Right ventricular outflow obstruction.

There is also right-sided aortic arch in around 20% of cases and atrial septal defect in 8-10% - pentalogy of Fallot. There are many anatomical variations.

How common is Fallot's tetralogy? (Epidemiology)

There is an incidence of 1 in 3,600 live births and it accounts for between 7-10% of congenital defects.2

TOF is a well-recognised feature of the 22q11 microdeletion syndrome and trisomy 21 (Down'ssyndrome).3 TOF may be associated with DiGeorge's syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome, maternal phenylketonuria and fetal hydantoin syndrome. They are part of a range of lesions known as CATCH 22 (cardiac defects, abnormal facies, thymic hypoplasia, cleft palate, hypocalcaemia) linked to deletions of a segment of chromosome band 22q11 (DiGeorge's critical region).4

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Fallot's tetralogy symptoms (presentation)2

Fetal ultrasound screening and echocardiography have led to an increase in prenatal diagnosis.5

Most cases of TOF in the UK are now either diagnosed antenatally, present with low oxygen saturations post-delivery or are diagnosed following assessment for a heart murmur. Therefore, many babies with TOF are now diagnosed while they are still pink with no clinical cyanosis ('pink Fallot'). Very occasionally TOF may be unrecognised and presents with cyanotic episodes or clubbing.

Therefore, only a minority of patients with TOF will present with the following clinical features:

  • Severe cyanosis may present at birth in a patient with TOF and associated pulmonary atresia.

  • Birthweight is low and growth is restricted.

  • Poor feeding, breathlessness and agitation.

  • Dyspnoea on exertion (usually after prolonged crying) is common.

  • Squatting to rest whilst exercising is characteristic of a right-to-left shunt and presents in an older child.

  • Cyanosis occurs and indicates the need for surgical repair.

  • Development and puberty may be delayed.

  • Hypoxic spells are potentially lethal, unpredictable episodes that occur even in non-cyanotic patients with TOF. These are known as 'tet spells' and consist of prolonged crying, intense cyanosis and decreased intensity of the murmur of pulmonic stenosis.

  • The rare patient may remain marginally and imperceptibly cyanotic, or acyanotic and asymptomatic, into adult life.

In the now rare situation, an older child or adult with long-standing cyanosis (without surgery) may present with the following signs:


  • Right ventricular predominance on palpation or possibly a bulging left hemithorax.

  • Systolic thrill at the lower left sternal border.

  • Aortic ejection click.

  • A patient without cyanosis has a long, loud, systolic murmur with a thrill along the right ventricular outflow tract (RVOT).

  • Single S2 - pulmonary valve closure not heard.

  • Systolic ejection murmur - varies in intensity inversely with the degree of RVOT obstruction.

  • Cyanotic patients have greater obstruction and a softer murmur.

General appearance

  • Cyanosis and clubbing are variable.

  • Scoliosis is common.


  • Vessels in the retina appear engorged.


  • Haemoptysis.


  • Where antenatal ultrasound is performed on high-risk mothers (eg, elevated serum screening for trisomy 21), the demonstration of a normal aortic root would make the presence of TOF unlikely.6

  • AP CXR shows normal heart size:

    • There may be a concavity in the area of main pulmonary artery - a silhouette compared with a boot or wooden shoe - 'coeur en sabot'.

    • The lung fields are oligaemic and the aorta is usually large.

  • ECG shows right axis deviation with right ventricular hypertrophy:

    • Dominant R-wave in right precordial chest leads.

  • Transthoracic cross-sectional echocardiography provides a comprehensive description of the intracardiac anatomy. 7

  • Pre-operative assessment with MRI scanning and CT angiography is essential to assess the level of right ventricle outflow obstruction and the state of the pulmonary arteries.8

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Fallot's tetralogy treatment and management2


In the severe form in neonates, immediate treatment includes oxygen, keeping the baby warm, investigations for other causes of neonatal collapse, such as infection and hypoglycaemia, and intravenous prostaglandin E1 to keep the ductus arteriosus open whilst waiting for surgery.

Infants with tetralogy of Fallot usually have operative correction in the first year of life. If possible, elective repair after the first few months of life is associated with better outcomes.9 Those who become symptomatically cyanotic as neonates may need earlier intervention. The options are primary repair, or staged repair. The latter involves an initial palliative procedure (which may be a transcatheter balloon valvuloplasty or stent insertion), followed by a complete repair. Research suggests primary repair may be associated with lower overall costs and fewer re-interventions, but this area remains controversial.10 An individualised surgical strategy (based on type of defect and size) is recommended.11


In less severe right ventricular outflow obstruction: surgery may be performed at age 3-6 months. There have also been reports of good outcomes with later repairs (23-163 months).12 However, some units advocate surgery at diagnosis, even within the first few days of life.

  • During the intervening period there is a need to prevent dehydration and iron deficiency.

  • Hypercyanotic events ('tet spells') are initially treated by placing the infant on the abdomen or on a parent's shoulder, in knee-chest position, which may, with calming, abort the attack.

  • Otherwise give O2 and morphine +/- intravenous propranolol.

  • Oral propranolol may reduce the number and severity of attacks, but it is best to refer for surgery as soon as they start.

  • Occasionally, diaphragmatic paralysis may occur requiring ventilatory support and physical therapy, but usually function returns in 1-2 months.


  • Repair of TOF in adults is no longer associated with a high early mortality.A 2020 series of 45 patients aged >15 years (median age 21 years) reported 2% immediate postoperative mortality and excellent early and mid-term results.13

  • Elevated haemoglobin concentration is indicative of chronic cyanosis and predictive for early mortality.

Fallot's tetralogy and pregnancy14

Women who have had their tetralogy repaired may want to consider pregnancy. Pregnancy is well tolerated with only 8% having cardiac complications. There is an increased risk of ventricular arrhythmia and heart failure among this group and risk may be assessed with markers such as NT-proBNP.15 There may be growth restriction and an increased risk of congenital heart disease in the fetus compared to the general population.

Vaginal delivery is the recommended mode of delivery for most women.


  • Early postoperative course may be complicated by a low cardiac output syndrome despite an apparently adequate repair.

  • Residual pulmonary incompetence.16

  • Aortic root dilation.

  • Sustained ventricular tachycardia.

  • Some children may show delayed neurodevelopment.17

  • Sudden death.

After 5-20 years following surgery, patients generally have reduced exercise capacity and cardiac output compared with that of healthy individuals.


If left untreated, TOF has a survival rate of 11% at 20 years and 3% at 40 years.18 Untreated TOF also causes delayed growth and development, including delayed puberty.

Current surgical treatment produces much improved 30-year survival rates between 68.5-90.5%.19 However residual problems (such as right ventricular outflow tract obstruction and pulmonary regurgitation) are common. They may require further interventions.

Historical note

TOF was first described by Niels Stenson in 1671, but the description of a large outlet ventricular septal defect together with subpulmonary and pulmonary valve stenosis, and its resulting physiology, was first demonstrated by William Hunter and then refined by Étienne-Louis Fallot in 1888.

Further reading and references

  • Rodrigues C, Silva M, Cerejo R, et al; Quality of life among adults with repaired tetralogy of fallot: A literature review. Rev Port Cardiol (Engl Ed). 2021 Dec;40(12):969-974. doi: 10.1016/j.repce.2021.11.016.
  1. Monaco M, Williams I; Tetralogy of Fallot: fetal diagnosis to surgical correction. Minerva Pediatr. 2012 Oct;64(5):461-70.
  2. Diaz-Frias J, Guillaume M; Tetralogy of Fallot.
  3. Tetralogy of Fallot (TOF); Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM)
  4. Lackey AE, Muzio MR; DiGeorge Syndrome.
  5. Grzyb A, Kolesnik A, Bokiniec R, et al; Tetralogy of Fallot in the fetus - from diagnosis to delivery. 18-year experience of a tertiary Fetal Cardiology Center. Kardiol Pol. 2022;80(7-8):834-841. doi: 10.33963/KP.a2022.0129. Epub 2022 May 17.
  6. Tongsong T, Sittiwangkul R, Chanprapaph P, et al; Prenatal sonographic diagnosis of tetralogy of fallot. J Clin Ultrasound. 2005 Oct;33(8):427-31.
  7. Motta P, Miller-Hance WC; Transesophageal echocardiography in tetralogy of Fallot. Semin Cardiothorac Vasc Anesth. 2012 Jun;16(2):70-87. doi: 10.1177/1089253211432157. Epub 2012 Feb 15.
  8. Lapierre C, Dubois J, Rypens F, et al; Tetralogy of Fallot: Preoperative assessment with MR and CT imaging. Diagn Interv Imaging. 2016 May;97(5):531-41. doi: 10.1016/j.diii.2016.01.009. Epub 2016 Mar 9.
  9. Smith CA, McCracken C, Thomas AS, et al; Long-term Outcomes of Tetralogy of Fallot: A Study From the Pediatric Cardiac Care Consortium. JAMA Cardiol. 2019 Jan 1;4(1):34-41. doi: 10.1001/jamacardio.2018.4255.
  10. O'Byrne ML, Glatz AC, Huang YV, et al; Comparative Costs of Management Strategies for Neonates With Symptomatic Tetralogy of Fallot. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2022 Mar 29;79(12):1170-1180. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2021.12.036.
  11. Jeon B, Kim DH, Kwon BS, et al; Surgical treatment of tetralogy of Fallot in symptomatic neonates and young infants. J Thorac Cardiovasc Surg. 2020 Apr;159(4):1466-1476.e2. doi: 10.1016/j.jtcvs.2019.10.172. Epub 2019 Nov 21.
  12. Heinisch PP, Guarino L, Hutter D, et al; Late correction of tetralogy of Fallot in children. Swiss Med Wkly. 2019 Jul 3;149:w20096. doi: 10.4414/smw.2019.20096. eCollection 2019 Jul 1.
  13. Bhushan R, Chugh V, Loona M, et al; Intracardiac Repair in Late Adolescent and Adult Tetralogy of Fallot - Early and Midterm Results from a Tertiary Care Centre. Braz J Cardiovasc Surg. 2022 Aug 16;37(4):511-516. doi: 10.21470/1678-9741-2020-0528.
  14. Guidelines for the management of cardiovascular diseases during pregnancy; The Task Force for the Management of Cardiovascular Diseases during Pregnancy of the European Society of Cardiology - ESC (2018)
  15. Quattrone A, Lie OH, Nestaas E, et al; Impact of pregnancy and risk factors for ventricular arrhythmias in women with tetralogy of Fallot. Open Heart. 2021 Jan;8(1):e001400. doi: 10.1136/openhrt-2020-001400.
  16. van den Berg J, Hop WC, Strengers JL, et al; Clinical condition at mid-to-late follow-up after transatrial-transpulmonary repair of tetralogy of Fallot. J Thorac Cardiovasc Surg. 2007 Feb;133(2):470-7.
  17. Hovels-Gurich HH, Bauer SB, Schnitker R, et al; Long-term outcome of speech and language in children after corrective surgery for cyanotic or acyanotic cardiac defects in infancy. Eur J Paediatr Neurol. 2008 Jan 21.
  18. Moolla MS, Muller W; Longstanding unrepaired tetralogy of Fallot. Pan Afr Med J. 2022 Jul 6;42:183. doi: 10.11604/pamj.2022.42.183.34851. eCollection 2022.
  19. van der Ven JPG, van den Bosch E, Bogers AJCC, et al; Current outcomes and treatment of tetralogy of Fallot. F1000Res. 2019 Aug 29;8:F1000 Faculty Rev-1530. doi: 10.12688/f1000research.17174.1. eCollection 2019.

Article history

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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