NEC, or necrotizing enterocolitis, is a serious disease that affects premature or underweight babies, particularly babies who were born before the 28th week of pregnancy. NEC occurs in about one out of every 1000 premature infants and just one out of every 10,000 full-term infants.
Tragically, NEC can lead to complications, including intestinal strictures and gastrointestinal perforations. Over time, the bacteria that caused the NEC can erode the delicate tissue in the infant’s intestinal lining, causing tissue death and, eventually, rupturing the intestinal wall. If the intestines are ruptured, waste and bacteria can spill out of the intestines and into the abdomen, causing a severe infection. It can also seep into an infant’s bloodstream.
Causes of NEC in Premature Babies
There are many potential causes of NEC, though physicians don’t fully understand precisely how it develops. Premature infants have weaker immune systems than full-term infants, which can make it more difficult for them to fight off viruses and bacteria.
Premature babies also tend to have more trouble digesting food than full-term babies do. Their weaker digestive systems, coupled with a weak immune system, make them especially vulnerable to infection.
Preterm infants also often have blood flow issues. If their intestines can’t get enough oxygen through the blood, tissue damage can occur due to a buildup of dangerous bacteria in the intestine. That bacteria can get into the infant’s bloodstream and cause a full-body infection.
Signs of NEC in Preterm Infants
If a premature baby contracts NEC, the symptoms might reveal themselves gradually or suddenly appear. Premature infants with NEC typically begin showing symptoms two to six weeks after birth.
Some of the most common symptoms young babies experience include vomiting yellow and green substances, swelling in the abdomen, pain in the affected area, bloody feces, diarrhea, an inability to consume food, weight loss, and abnormal shifts in body temperature and heartbeat, fluctuating blood pressure, and general lethargy.
Common Complications of NEC
Left untreated, NEC can cause severe complications and lasting injuries. One of the most common complications of NEC is peritonitis. Peritonitis is an infection that occurs when a hole in the gastrointestinal tract allows bacteria to spill into the abdominal cavity. Eventually, peritonitis can lead to a dangerous blood infection called sepsis.
Intestinal strictures are also common in NEC patients. In fact, up to one in three babies with NEC suffers from an intestinal stricture. A stricture is essentially just a narrowing of the intestinal tract. Strictures can cause blockages and prevent food from being digested. Many babies don’t develop strictures until a few months after they have recovered from NEC. If an infant develops an intestinal stricture, they might have to have surgery to repair any blockages.
Other complications include short bowel syndrome, which usually occurs because of damage to the intestine. Short bowel syndrome can lead to malabsorption, or the inability of the intestines to absorb nutrients from food. This is a long-term condition that often requires ongoing care for the rest of the infant’s life to ensure they get all the nutrients they need.
Infants who contract NEC sometimes also experience stunted growth and other developmental delays, particularly if they had to undergo intestinal surgery as part of their treatment.
Available Treatments for NEC
When treating NEC, nurses will often stop oral feeding and instead use an IV to deliver the nutrients a baby needs directly into their bloodstream. Many babies with NEC also receive fluids through an IV.
Among the most common treatments for preterm infant NEC are antibiotics and nasogastric tubes. Antibiotics can be given through an IV to kill the harmful bacteria residing in the intestine. Nasogastric tubes can be used to eliminate gas bubbles from the digestive system. They are typically inserted through the nose or mouth.
In more severe cases, surgery might be required. About one in four premature infants with NEC requires surgery. The purpose of surgery is to remove portions of the intestine that contain damaged, dead, or ruptured tissue.
In severe cases of NEC, a surgeon might disconnect and reroute the intestines out of the body through a hole in the child’s belly, known as a stoma. This allows waste to pass out of the baby’s body without causing further damage to the intestinal tract and gives the intestines time to fully heal after surgery.
After a period that usually lasts no more than a month or two, the surgeon will reverse the procedure and reconnect the intestinal tract. From that point on, the child should be able to pass waste normally. Oral feeding can also resume as usual.
If you believe your baby developed NEC due to cow’s milk-based formulas such as Enfamil and Similac, you may be eligible to file a lawsuit, but you must act quickly and file a suit before the statue of limitations expires.
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