Necrotizing enterocolitis, or NEC, is a common disease of the intestinal tract in which the tissue lining the intestine becomes inflamed, dies, and can slough off.
The condition typically affects infants who are born preterm or who are already sick, and it usually occurs before the newborn leaves the hospital. It usually begins within the first 2 or 3 weeks after birth in preterm infants who otherwise appear to be getting healthier.
What are the symptoms of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC)?
In NEC, some of the tissue lining a baby’s intestine becomes diseased and can die. The bacteria in the infant’s intestine can then penetrate the dead or decaying intestinal tissue, infect the wall of the intestine, and enter the bloodstream, causing systemic or bloodstream infection. The surviving tissue becomes swollen and inflamed — and as a result, the baby is unable to digest food or otherwise move food through the digestive tract.
The symptoms of NEC can develop over a period of days or appear suddenly. Commonly reported symptoms include:
Poor tolerance of feeding (not being able to digest food)
Bloating or swelling of the stomach (abdominal distention)
Stomach discoloration, usually bluish or reddish
Pain when someone touches the abdomen
Blood in the stools or a change in their volume or frequency
Diarrhea, with change in the color and consistency of the stool, often containing frank (visible) blood
Decreased activity (lethargy)
Vomiting greenish-yellow liquid
Inability to maintain normal temperature
Episodes of low heart rate or apnea, a temporary stop in breathing
In advanced cases, the blood pressure may drop and the pulse may become weak. Infants may develop fluid in the abdominal cavity or infection of the tissue lining the stomach (peritonitis), or they could go into shock. The affected area of the intestine may develop a hole or perforation in the wall requiring emergency surgery. Pressure from the abdomen can cause a severe difficulty in breathing. In this case, the infant may need support from a breathing machine, or respirator.
The development of symptoms such as the inability to tolerate feeding, bloody stools, or distention of the abdomen could indicate NEC. The condition is usually confirmed by an abdominal X-ray. If the X-ray reveals a “bubbly” appearance in the wall of the intestine or air outside the infant’s intestine (in the peritoneal cavity) the diagnosis is confirmed.1 Other X-ray signs include air in a vein of the liver called the portal vein, swollen intestines, or a lack of gas in the abdomen.
Other useful tests include looking for blood in the infant’s stool. If necessary, the health care provider can use a chemical that reveals blood not visible to the eye.
In addition, health care providers may test the infant’s blood to check for infection, which could suggest NEC. They may also use a blood test for lactic acid, which can indicate whether the body is getting enough oxygen or an infection that increases the metabolic rate and production of lactic acid.2
Blood and stool tests, combined with the abdominal X-ray, can help the health care provider determine the seriousness of the infant’s condition.
What causes necrotizing enterocolitis?
The cause of NEC is not well known. In premature infants, the cause may be related to the immaturity of the child’s digestive system. NEC involves infection and inflammation in the child’s gut, which may stem from the growth of dangerous bacteria or the growth of bacteria in parts of the intestine where they do not usually live.
Other possible causes of NEC that are related to having an immature gut include:
Inability to digest food and pass it through, allowing a buildup of toxic substances
Inadequate blood circulation to the gut
Inability of the infant’s digestive system to keep out dangerous bacteria
Inadequate ability of the immature intestine to provide an adequate structural barrier to bacteria. This barrier usually matures in the unborn infant starting about week 26 (11 to 12 weeks before a full-term birth).
The inability of the immature gut to secrete its normal biochemical defenses
Because premature infants may lack any or all of these abilities, they may be more vulnerable to the types of inflammation that lead to NEC.
Full-term infants who get NEC almost always do so because they are already sick or, in some cases, have a low body weight for their gestational age. They might have congenital heart disease or have had vascular bypass surgery, for example, possibly affecting the blood supply to the intestines. Full-term infants are usually diagnosed with NEC earlier than are premature infants (day 5 versus day 13 on average), possibly because they start feeding earlier. The condition is equally life threatening in premature and full-term infants.
A recent study found that a common type of medication, sometimes given to infants for acid reflux and called “H2-blockers,” was associated with a slight increase in the risk of NEC in preterm infants.
All newborn infants born preterm (before 37 weeks of pregnancy) or born with a low birth weight (less than 2,500 grams, or about 5.5 pounds) are at increased risk for necrotizing enterocolitis.
The smaller the infant or the more premature the delivery, the greater the risk. According to a 2008 review of the evidence, the NICHD estimates that NEC affects about 9,000 of the 480,000 infants born preterm each year in the United States.
The population most at risk for NEC is increasing because with technological advances in care the number of very low birth weight infants who survive continues to grow. The percentage of very low birth weight infants who develop NEC remains steady, however, at about 7%.
NEC continues to be one of the leading causes of illness and death among preterm infants — and 15 to 40 percent of babies with NEC die from the disease.
Although NEC mostly occurs in preterm infants, it occasionally occurs in babies born at term. One study found that about 9% of all NEC cases that occurred in one children’s hospital over 30 years were after full-term births. Full-term infants with NEC often have another serious illness or risk factor, such as congenital heart disease or restricted growth in the womb. NEC may also have a different disease process in full-term versus preterm babies.