Definition

What is necrotizing enterocolitis?

Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is a disease that develops when the tissue in the inner lining of the small or large intestine becomes damaged and begins to die. This causes the intestine to become inflamed. The condition usually affects only the inner lining of the intestine, but the entire thickness of the intestine may become impacted eventually.

In severe cases of NEC, a hole may form in the wall of the intestine. If this occurs, the bacteria normally found inside the intestine can leak into the abdomen and cause widespread infection. This is considered a medical emergency.

How common is necrotizing enterocolitis?

NEC can develop in any newborn within two weeks after birth. However, it’s most common in premature infants, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of cases. Around 10 percent of babies who weigh less than 1.5 kg develop NEC. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of necrotizing enterocolitis?

The common symptoms of necrotizing enterocolitis are:

  • Abdominal bloating
  • Blood in the stool
  • Diarrhea
  • Feeding problems
  • Lack of energy
  • Unstable body temperature
  • Unstable breathing, heart rate, or blood pressure
  • Vomiting

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

If your baby has any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.

Causes

What causes necrotizing enterocolitis?

NEC occurs when the lining of the intestinal wall dies. This problem nearly always develops in an infant who is ill or premature. It is likely to occur while the infant is still in the hospital.

The exact cause of this disorder is unknown. A drop in blood flow to the bowel can damage the tissue. Bacteria in the intestine may also add to the problem. Also, premature infants have an undeveloped immune response to factors such as bacteria or low blood flow. An imbalance in immune regulation appears to be involved in NEC.

Risk factors

What increases my baby’s risk for necrotizing enterocolitis?

Babies at higher risk for the condition include:

  • Premature infants
  • Infants who are fed formula rather than human milk. (Human milk contains growth factors, antibodies and immune cells which may help prevent the problem.)
  • Infants in a nursery where an outbreak has occurred
  • Infants who have received blood exchange transfusions or have been seriously ill

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is necrotizing enterocolitis diagnosed?

A doctor can diagnose NEC by doing a physical examination and running various tests. During the exam, the doctor will gently touch your baby’s abdomen to check for swelling, pain, and tenderness. They’ll then perform an abdominal X-ray. The X-ray will provide detailed images of the intestine, allowing the doctor to look for signs of inflammation and damage more easily. Your baby’s stool can also be tested to look for the presence of blood. This is called a stool guaiac test.

Your baby’s doctor may also order certain blood tests to measure your baby’s platelet levels and white blood cell counts. Platelets make it possible for the blood to clot. White blood cells help fight infection. Low platelet levels or a high white blood cell count can be a sign of NEC.

Your baby’s doctor may need to insert a needle into the baby’s abdominal cavity to check for fluid in the intestine. The presence of intestinal fluid usually means there’s a hole in the intestine.

How is necrotizing enterocolitis treated?

There are numerous different ways to treat NEC. Your child’s specific treatment plan will depend on several factors, including:

  • The severity of the disease
  • The age of your child
  • The overall health of your child

In most cases, however, your doctor will tell you to stop breast-feeding. Your baby will receive their fluids and nutrients intravenously, or through an IV. Your baby will likely need antibiotics to help fight the infection. If your baby is having difficulty breathing due to a swollen abdomen, they’ll receive extra oxygen or breathing assistance.

Surgery may be necessary in severe cases of NEC. The procedure involves the removal of the damaged sections of the intestines.

Throughout the course of treatment, your baby will be monitored closely. Your baby’s doctor will perform X-rays and blood tests regularly to make sure the disease doesn’t get worse.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage necrotizing enterocolitis?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you reduce your baby’s risk of necrotizing enterocolitis:

Right now, there’s no way to prevent NEC. But studies show that babies who were only fed breast milk (no formula), were less likely to develop this disease. That’s why doctors recommend feeding at-risk infants breast milk, starting with small amounts.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Review Date: August 24, 2018 | Last Modified: August 24, 2018

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