To examine the changes in birth cohort prevalence rates and severity of congenital heart disease, we studied children with congenital heart disease born to blacks, whites, and Mexican-Americans in Dallas County from 1971 through 1984. Diagnoses were made by pediatric cardiologists' clinical evaluations, echocardiography, catheterization, surgery, or autopsy. During this study period, 2,509 of 379,561 liveborn infants were diagnosed, a prevalence rate of 6.6/1000. The rates for whites was significantly higher than for blacks or Mexican-Americans--7.2/1,000, 5.6/1,000, and 5.9/1,000, respectively. The rate for severe cases requiring cardiac catheterization or surgery or undergoing autopsy was 3.1/1,000 and did not differ among the three groups. The time trend for rates of congenital heart disease suggested an apparent increase in prevalence rate during the 1970s; however, the prevalence rate of severe forms remained relatively stable. This indicates that the apparent rise in prevalence could be accounted for by an increase in detection of mild cases. These findings were interpreted as reflecting a greater tendency for pediatricians to refer asymptomatic children with significant heart murmurs to a pediatric cardiologist.