NEC | Preterm Birth | Medical Specialties


Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is the most common gastrointestinal (GI) medical/surgical emergency occurring in neonates. An acute inflammatory disease with a multifactorial and controversial etiology, the condition is characterized by variable damage to the intestinal tract ranging from mucosal injury to full-thickness necrosis and perforation

What is Necrotizing Enterocolitis or NEC?

NEC most commonly affects the terminal ileum and the proximal ascending colon. However, varying degrees of NEC can affect any segment of the small intestine or colon. The entire bowel may be involved and may be irreversibly damaged.

the classic clinical triad consists of abdominal distension. . lethargy. and pneumatosis intestinalis. or other nonspecific findings of sepsis. Occasionally. signs and symptoms include temperature instability. bloody stools.NEC typically occurs in the second to third week of life in the infant who is premature and has been formula fed. Although various clinical and radiographic signs and symptoms are used to make the diagnosis.

Occurrence of NEC in term and preterms .Term baby Compared with a preterm infant. with a reported median age of onset that ranges from 1-3 days of life in the immediate postnatal period but that may appear as late as age 1 month. a term baby with NEC presents at a younger age.

such as birth asphyxia. congenital heart disease. or metabolic abnormalities. or has a history of abnormal fetal growth pattern. respiratory distress.The term neonate who is immediately affected postnatally is usually systemically ill with other predisposing conditions. .

However. particularly if they are treated with indomethacin for pharmacologic closure.Premature babies are at risk for developing necrotizing enterocolitis for several weeks after birth. patients with persistent patent ductus arteriosus who ultimately required surgical ligation were found to have a higher NEC-associated mortality rate than did patients whose patent ductus arteriosus was successfully closed without surgery. . with the age of onset inversely related to gestational age at birth. Premature infants with patent ductus arteriosus are at higher risk for developing NEC earlier in life.

Causes of NEC . in the intestinal lumen. Such colonization is enhanced by the presence of oligofructose.Abnormal intestinal flora In healthy individuals. Infants who receive formula feedings without oligofructose as a constituent have been noted to have a predominance of clostridial organisms. a component of human milk. the intestinal milieu is characterized by a predominance of bifidobacteria.

infants with postnatally diminished systemic blood flow. some have noted that infants exposed to intrauterine environments marked by compromised placental blood flow (ie. cocaine exposure) have an increased incidence of NEC.Epidemiologically. preeclampsia. as is found in patients with patent ductus arteriosus or congenital heart disease (both considered risk factors for NEC). also have an increased incidence. . maternal hypertension. Infants with patent ductus arteriosus are at particularly high risk for developing NEC if pharmacologic closure is attempted. Similarly.

This finding suggests that maturation of the GI system plays an important role in the development of NEC. studies have found a markedly decreased risk of NEC with increasing gestational age. Although approximately 5-25% of infants with NEC are born full term.NEC is principally a disease of premature infants. .

which allows hydrolysis of intestinal toxins. Finally. the enzyme that converts trypsinogen to trypsin. secretory immunoglobulin A (IgA) is deficient in the intestinal tract of premature infants not fed breast milk. Mucus secretion from immature goblet cells is decreased. Pancreatic exocrine insufficiency is associated with low levels of enterokinase. and peristaltic activity is poorly coordinated. Gut motility is impaired.The premature neonate has numerous physical and immunologic impairments that compromise intestinal integrity. Gastric acid and pepsin production are decreased during the first month of life. .

Intestinal regulatory T-cell aggregates are a first-line defense against luminal pathogens and may be induced by collections of small lymphoid aggregates.In the preterm infant. which are absent or deficient in the premature infant. . mucosal cellular immaturity and the absence of mature antioxidative mechanisms may render the mucosal barrier more susceptible to injury.

Stage IB diagnosis is the same as stage IA. NEC Stage based on Bell's system . and temperature instability are present Mild intestinal signs such as increased gastric residuals and mild abdominal distention are present Radiographic findings can be normal or can show some mild nonspecific distention. nonspecific systemic signs such as apnea. bradycardia.Bell stage I ̶ suspected disease Stage IA characteristics are as follows: Mild. with the addition of grossly bloody stool.

. with the addition of absent bowel sounds and abdominal tenderness Radiographic findings show ileus and/or pneumatosis intestinalis This diagnosis is sometimes referred to as "medical" necrotizing enterocolitis as surgical intervention is not needed to successfully treat the patient.Bell stage II ̶ definite disease Stage IIA characteristics are as follows: Patient is mildly ill. Diagnostic signs include the mild systemic signs present in stage IA Intestinal signs include all of the signs present in stage I.

Stage IIB characteristics are as follows: Patient is moderately ill Diagnosis requires all of stage I signs plus the systemic signs of moderate illness. perhaps some erythema or other discoloration. and/or right lower quadrant mass Radiographs show portal venous gas with or without ascites Bell stage III ̶ advanced disease This stage represents advanced. . severe NEC that has a high likelihood of progressing to surgical intervention. such as mild metabolic acidosis and mild thrombocytopenia Abdominal examination reveals definite tenderness.

with the addition of hypotension. severe metabolic acidosis.Stage IIIA characteristics are as follows: Patient has severe NEC with an intact bowel Diagnosis requires all of the above conditions. . and/or neutropenia Abdominal examination shows marked distention with signs of generalized peritonitis Radiographic examination reveals definitive evidence of ascites Stage IIIB designation is reserved for the severely ill infant with perforated bowel observed on radiograph in addition to the findings for IIIA. coagulopathy. bradycardia. respiratory failure.

Increased abdominal girth Visible intestinal loops Obvious abdominal distention and decreased bowel sounds Change in stool pattern Hematochezia Palpable abdominal mass Erythema of the abdominal wall Systemic signs can include any of the following: Signs and Symptoms .

or both Ileus/decreased bowel sounds Abdominal wall erythema (advanced stages) Hematochezia Systemic signs are nonspecific and can include any combination of the following: . abdominal tenderness.Feeding intolerance Delayed gastric emptying Abdominal distention.

Respiratory failure Apnea Lethargy Decreased peripheral perfusion Shock (in advanced stages) Cardiovascular collapse Bleeding diathesis (consumption coagulopathy) .

Although elevated mature and/or immature neutrophil counts may not be good indicators of neonatal sepsis after the first 3 days of life. is usually repeated at least every 6 hours if the patient's clinical status continues to deteriorate. moderate to profound neutropenia (absolute neutrophil count [ANC] < 1500/μL) strongly suggests established sepsis. with manual differential to evaluate the white blood cell (WBC). White blood cell count Marked elevation may be worrisome. and platelet count. but leukopenia is even more concerning. Diagnostics .Complete blood count A complete blood count (CBC). hematocrit.

.Red blood cell count Premature infants are prone to anemia due to iatrogenic blood draws. as well as anemia of prematurity. An elevated hemoglobin level and hematocrit may mark hemoconcentration due to notable accumulation of extravascular fluid. blood loss from hematochezia and/or a developing consumptive coagulopathy can manifest as an acute decrease in hematocrit. however.

but acute NEC is more commonly associated with thrombocytopenia (< 100. Consumption coagulopathy is characterized by prolonged prothrombin time (PT). Thrombocytopenia may become more profound in severe cases that become complicated with consumption coagulopathy. and decreasing fibrinogen and increasing fibrin degradation products concentrations Thrombocytopenia appears to be a reaction to gram-negative organisms and endotoxins. prolonged activated partial thromboplastin time (aPTT).Platelet count Platelets are an acute phase reactant. and thrombocytosis can represent physiologic stress to an infant.000/μL). Platelet counts of less than 50. .000 warrant platelet transfusion.

Blood culture Obtaining a blood culture is recommended before beginning antibiotics in any patient presenting with any signs or symptoms of sepsis or NEC. Although blood cultures do not grow any organisms in most cases of NEC. . sepsis is one of the major conditions that mimics the disease and should be considered in the differential diagnosis. identification of a specific organism can aid and guide further therapy. Therefore.

Serum electrolytes Serum electrolytes can show some characteristic abnormalities. Depending on the baby's age and feeding regimen. Obtain basic electrolytes (Na+. Serum sodium Hyponatremia is a worrisome sign that is consistent with capillary leak and "third spacing" of fluid within the bowel and peritoneal space. . K+. baseline sodium levels may be low normal or subnormal. and heightened vigilance is warranted. but an acute decrease (< 130 mEq/dL) is alarming. followed serially at least every 6 hours depending on the acuity of the patient's condition. and Cl-) during the initial evaluation.

and bowel necrosis. It is seen in conjunction with poor tissue perfusion. . sepsis.Metabolic acidosis Low serum bicarbonate (< 20) in a baby with a previously normal acid-base status is also concerning.

suggesting that the bubbles are caused by bacterial fermentation. It appears as a characteristic train-track lucency configuration within the bowel wall. Analysis of gas aspirated from these air bubbles reveals that it consists primarily of hydrogen. which can promote inflammation. Carbohydrate (often lactose) fermentation by intestinal flora yields hydrogen and carbon dioxide and a series of short-chain organic acids. . Intramural air bubbles represent gas produced by bacteria within the wall of the bowel.Pneumatosis intestinalis Pneumatosis intestinalis is a radiologic sign pathognomonic of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC).

These babies are traditionally kept on a diet of nothing by mouth (NPO) for 7-10 days. Therefore. Many of these babies have difficult intravenous (IV) access. making parenteral hyperalimentation necessary. the need for prolonged parenteral nutrition frequently requires placing central venous catheters. Treatment . which have attendant risks and complications that include thromboembolic events and nosocomial infections.atients with mild (Bell stage II) NEC require GI rest to facilitate resolution of the intestinal inflammatory process.

.Cessation of feeding and initiation of broadspectrum antibiotics in every baby with feeding intolerance impedes proper nutrition and exposes the baby to unnecessary antibacterials that may predispose to fungemia. failure to intervene appropriately for the baby with early NEC may exacerbate the disease and worsen the outcome. On the other hand.

Placement of a peripheral arterial line may be helpful at the beginning of the patient's treatment to facilitate serial arterial blood sampling and invasive monitoring. Placement of a central venous catheter for administration of pressors. antibiotics. If the baby is rapidly deteriorating. fluids. with apnea and/or signs of impending circulatory and respiratory collapse. and blood products is prudent because severely affected patients often have complications that include sepsis. shock. and disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC). . airway control and initiation of mechanical ventilation is indicated.

although the specific regimen used should be tailored to the most common nosocomial organisms found in the particular NICU.Treatment by Stage The mainstay of treatment for patients with stage I or II necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is nonoperative management. . antibiotic coverage has consisted of ampicillin. Historically. performing nasogastric decompression. and initiating broad-spectrum antibiotics. and either clindamycin or metronidazole. The initial course of treatment consists of stopping enteral feedings. gentamicin.

After stabilization. including fluid resuscitation. TPN should be provided during the period that the infant is NPO. .Bell stages IA and IB The patient is kept on an NPO diet with antibiotics for 3 days. and antibiotics for 14 days. Bell stages IIA and IIB Treatment includes support for respiratory and cardiovascular failure. NPO. IV fluids are provided. including total parenteral nutrition (TPN). Surgical consultation should be considered.

fluid resuscitation.Bell stage IIIA Treatment involves NPO for 14 days. inotropic support. and ventilator support. Surgical consultation should be obtained. is provided. Bell stage IIIB Surgical intervention. . as outlined in the next section. TPN should be provided during the period of NPO.

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