What is necrotizing enterocolitis?

Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), is a serious medical condition that mostly affects premature infants. Bacteria invades the wall of the intestine. Inflammation sets in.This can cause bacteria to leak into the baby's abdomen. If not treated, it can lead to serious infection and death.

Causes of necrotizing enterocolitis

Doctors don't know the exact cause of NEC. However, there may be some factors that contribute to this disorder. These include:

  • Premature birth
  • Too little oxygen or blood flow reaching the baby's intestines
  • Bacteria from food that enters the intestines and damages the tissues

Risk factors for necrotizing enterocolitis

A small percentage of full-term babies are born with this condition. These babies are usually already sick. They may have low birth weights. Risk factors for full-term babies include congenital heart disease or surgery that affects blood flow to the intestines.

Other risk factors may include:

  • Babies born premature
  • Babies who had a difficult delivery or have lowered oxygen levels
  • Babies who have too many red blood cells in circulation
  • Babies with existing gastrointestinal infections
  • Babies who’ve received a blood transfusion

Symptoms of necrotizing enterocolitis

Symptoms can occur within the first two weeks after birth. Symptoms of NEC include:

  • Bloating, swelling or redness around the baby's stomach
  • Food staying in the stomach longer than expected
  • Diarrhea and/or dark or bloody stools
  • Constipation
  • Trouble feeding
  • Frequent vomiting
  • Pauses in breathing
  • Lack of energy
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Low blood pressure
  • Fever

Diagnosis of necrotizing enterocolitis

Doctors start to diagnose NEC first by touching the baby's stomach. They check for swelling and tenderness. Next, they do an X-ray on the baby's stomach. This takes a picture of the inside of the baby's body. It gives the doctor a more detailed look at the intestines. The doctor can also check for signs of damage. The baby's stool may show signs of blood. It's possible that the doctor may order blood tests to see if there are signs of infection. Another test involves inserting a needle into the baby's belly to check for fluid buildup.

Treatments for necrotizing enterocolitis

Treatment depends on how bad the condition is. The child's age and their overall health also determine treatment. Your baby's doctor can recommend a few things to fight the infection. Usually, the doctor may advise you to stop breastfeeding. It's possible your baby may need surgery. Common NEC treatments include the following:

  • The baby can get antibiotics to fight the infection.
  • The baby can get fluids and nutrients through an IV.
  • The baby may need extra oxygen to help with breathing if their swollen belly makes it difficult.

The doctor may want to do more X-rays and blood tests. This helps them make sure the disease doesn't spread or worsen during treatment. The doctor will also likely monitor your baby very closely.

Recovery from necrotizing enterocolitis

Most babies are able to completely recover after treatment. Some may have damaged bowels. This can cause an intestinal blockage. Or, their intestines may be damaged. That can make it difficult for the baby to absorb nutrients. However, the complications are rare. Most complications are associated with surgery and can lessen during recovery.

If you believe your baby is showing any signs of NEC, it's essential that you see a doctor immediately. Your doctor can best determine the right recovery process for your baby.

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