Skip navigation

Necrotizing enterocolitis

Necrotizing enterocolitis is the death of intestinal tissue. It most often affects premature or sick babies.

Causes

Necrotizing enterocolitis occurs when the lining of the intestinal wall dies and the tissue falls off. The cause for this disorder is unknown. However, it is thought that a decrease in blood flow to the bowel keeps the bowel from producing mucus that protects the gastrointestinal tract. Bacteria in the intestine may also be a cause.

This disorder usually develops in an infant that is already ill or premature, and most often develops while the infant is still in the hospital.

Those with a higher risk for this condition include:

  • Premature infants
  • Infants who are fed concentrated formulas
  • Infants in a nursery where an outbreak has occurred
  • Infants who have received blood exchange transfusions

Symptoms

Symptoms may come on slowly or suddenly, and may include:

Exams and Tests

Treatment

In an infant suspected of having necrotizing enterocolitis, feedings are stopped and gas is relieved from the bowel by inserting a small tube into the stomach. Intravenous fluid replaces formula or breast milk. Antibiotic therapy is started. The infant's condition is monitored with abdominal x-rays, blood tests, and blood gases.

Surgery will be needed if there is a hole in the intestines or peritonitis (inflammation of the abdominal wall). The dead bowel tissue is removed and a colostomy or ileostomy is performed. The bowel is then reconnected several weeks or months later when the infection and inflammation have healed.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Necrotizing enterocolitis is a serious disease with a death rate approaching 25%. Early, aggressive treatment helps improve the outcome.

Possible Complications

When to Contact a Medical Professional

If any symptoms of necrotizing enterocolitis develop, especially in an infant that has recently been hospitalized for illness or prematurity, go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911).

References

Piazza AJ, Stroll BJ. Digestive System Disorders. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 18th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 102.

Update Date: 5/16/2011

Updated by: Todd Eisner, MD, Private practice specializing in Gastroenterology, Boca Raton, FL. Clinical Instructor, Florida Atlantic University School of Medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

A.D.A.M Quality Logo

A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission (www.urac.org). URAC's accreditation program is an independent audit to verify that A.D.A.M. follows rigorous standards of quality and accountability. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information and services. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorial policy, editorial process and privacy policy. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch).

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. Copyright 1997-2014, A.D.A.M., Inc. Duplication for commercial use must be authorized in writing by ADAM Health Solutions.

A.D.A.M Logo