Necrotizing enterocolitis in newborns: Pathogenesis, prevention and management

Alecia M. Thompson, Matthew J. Bizzarro

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

211 Scopus citations


Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is primarily a disease process of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract of premature neonates that results in inflammation and bacterial invasion of the bowel wall. Despite advances in the care of premature infants, NEC remains one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in this population. It occurs in 1-5% of all neonatal intensive care admissions and 5-10% of all very low birthweight (<1500 g) infants. Although research has presented an interesting array of potential contributing factors, the precise aetiology of this multifactorial disease process remains elusive. Historically, it was believed that NEC arose predominantly from ischaemic injury to the immature GI tract, yet alternate plausible hypotheses indicate that many factors are likely to be involved. These may include issues related to the introduction and advancement of enteric feeding, alterations in the normal bacterial colonization of the GI tract, bacterial translocation and activation of the cytokine cascade, decreased epidermal growth factor, increased platelet activating factor, and mucosal damage from free radical production. Clinical manifestations of NEC may be vague, including increased episodes of apnoea, desaturations, bradycardia, lethargy and temperature instability. There may also be GI-specific symptoms such as feeding intolerance, emesis, bloody stools, abdominal distention and tenderness, and abdominal wall discolouration. Laboratory values may be indicative of infection, coagulation abnormalities and fluid retention. Radiographic signs may include ileus, dilated or fixed intestinal loops, air in the intestinal wall or free air in the abdomen. Medical treatment typically consists of bowel rest and decompression, antibacterial therapy, and management of other haematological or electrolyte imbalances. Increased respiratory and cardiovascular support is sometimes needed. In neonates who do not respond adequately to medical management, or if pneumoperitoneum is present, surgical intervention may occur with either use of a peritoneal drain or laparotomy. Advances in antenatal and neonatal care have resulted in increased survival of extremely preterm neonates. As this at-risk population continues to increase, an effective preventative strategy for NEC is needed. One preventative strategy is the use of antenatal corticosteroids to enhance maturation of the fetus if preterm delivery is likely. Recommendation of use of breast milk, early initiation of trophic feeds and judicoius advancement of enteric feeds are current postnatal strategies. Other preventative strategies that have been investigated include the use of oral antibacterials, antioxidants, supplementation of arginine and epidermal growth factor, none of which have changed clinical practice. Recent promising data indicate that prophylactic use of probiotics may play a role in preventing the onset of NEC. However, more large-scale, definitive studies are needed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1227-1238
Number of pages12
Issue number9
StatePublished - 2008
Externally publishedYes


  • Acute enterocolitis, prevention
  • Acute enterocolitis, treatment
  • Antibacterials, therapeutic use
  • Probiotics, therapeutic use

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology (medical)


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