Necrotising enterocolitis (NEC) is the most common surgical emergency in neonates.1
NEC is an acute inflammatory disease, predominantly affecting preterm infants. It can lead to bowel necrosis, multi-system organ failure and is life-threatening if left untreated.2
NEC occurs in around 12% of low birth weight infants (< 1500g). Due to the advancement of neonatal intensive care, more at-risk infants are surviving long enough for the disease to develop and so the incidence of NEC is increasing.3
NEC is a multifactorial condition and the exact cause is unknown. Damage to the intestinal mucosa can occur due to vascular insults, toxin exposure, infection and genetic factors.
This damage allows pathogenic colonisation of normal commensal bacteria. However, some outbreaks of NEC have been isolated to a pathogenic organism, such as Escherichia coil.3
85% of NEC cases occur in infants who are premature, or with a low birth weight.3
Other risk factors include:
Congenital heart disease
Antibiotic treatment lasting longer than 10 days
Use of cow’s milk formula (breastfeeding is protective against NEC)
NEC usually presents within the first two weeks of life.
Typical symptoms of NEC include:4
A new feed intolerance
Vomiting (which may be bilious)
Haematochezia (fresh blood in the stools)
Other important areas to cover in the history include:
Feeding history: infants with NEC often have a new onset feed intolerance. Ask about rate of feeding, volume taken, vomiting after food, any changes in food (e.g. from breast to bottle and changes in formula).3
Bowel movements: ask about normal bowel habits. Has meconium been passed? How often do they open their bowels? This can be quantified by the number of dirty nappies in a day.
Past medical history: although this may be limited in an infant, it is important to cover the known risk factors.
Pregnancy history: it is important to take a thorough pregnancy history from the parent/carer.
Family history: ask about a family history of illness in the newborn period. Many neonatal conditions, including NEC, have a genetic predisposition.
Key areas to cover in the pregnancy history include:
Was the mother under hospital-led maternity care (and if so, why)?
Was this a high-risk pregnancy?
Did mother or baby develop any problems during the pregnancy?
Method of birth?
Any complications with the birth (both mother and infant)?
All unwell infants require a thorough clinical examination. See the Geeky Medics guide here for further information.
Typical clinical findings in NEC include: 3
Reduced bowel sounds
Palpable abdominal mass
Visible intestinal loops
Signs of sepsis
NICE traffic light system
The NICE traffic light system for identifying the risk of serious illness can be used to help interpret examination findings to give an indicator of severity.5
The clinical presentation of NEC can appear similar to several other conditions.
Table 1. Differential diagnoses of NEC.
Can develop as a complication of NEC. NEC has a specific presentation on abdominal X-ray.3
Common causes of neonatal sepsis include group B strep infection, premature or prolonged rupture of membranes, chorioamnionitis and maternal septicaemia.6
Intussusception occurs in infants aged between 3 months and 3 years; it is rare in infants. NEC tends to occur in the first 2 weeks of life.7
An important differential for the acute abdomen in infancy.3
Hirschsprung’s can cause failure to pass meconium in the first 48 hours of life, NEC does not cause this.8
Baseline blood tests (FBC, CRP): CRP may be raised and there may be thrombocytopenia and neutropenia.
Blood cultures: non-specific in NEC and are commonly reported as negative. However, if a bacterial, viral or fungal agent is isolated this can be useful for guiding treatment.9
Blood gas: may show a raised lactate or acidosis.
Abdominal ultrasound: ultrasound is a safe first choice of imaging due to the lack of exposure to ionising radiation. Signs that are indicative of NEC include air in the portal system, ascites and perforation.
Abdominal X-ray: may show thickening of the bowel wall, dilated bowel loops filled with gas and distended bowel.10
If the bowel has perforated, Rigler’s sign may be visible. This occurs when both sides of the bowel wall are visible due to the presence of gas inside the lumen and within the peritoneal cavity.11
Neonates with suspected NEC require urgent review by a paediatric surgeon.
Principles of medical management for NEC include:4
Keep the infant nil by mouth (total parenteral nutrition may be required)
Consider bowel decompression with a nasogastric tube
Assess and manage sepsis
Intravenous fluid resuscitation
Intravenous antibiotics (broad-spectrum cover is recommended as first-line, such as cefotaxime and metronidazole)
Circulatory support and ventilation may be required
Surgical management is required in 20-50% of cases.2
According to the modified Bell’s staging criteria, the main indication for surgical intervention is evidence of perforation. A laparotomy is carried out to remove perforated and necrotic bowel from the abdomen.5
Approximately one in four infants who develop NEC will require surgery. Of those, a 29% post-surgical mortality has been reported at one year.12
General complications of NEC include:3
Disseminated intravascular coagulation
Post-operative complications of NEC include:3
Short bowel syndrome
Formation of intestinal strictures
NEC is the most common surgical emergency in the neonatal period.
It is most common in underweight, pre-term infants fed with cow’s milk formula.
NEC presents with blood in the stool, problems with feeding and abdominal distension.
These infants need urgent surgical review and to be made nil by mouth.
Approximately one in four infants who develop NEC will require surgery.
Dr Chris Jefferies
Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. Necrotising Enterocolitis. Published July 2016. Available from: [LINK]
Shaffner. Roger’s Handbook of Paediatric Intensive Care. Published 2016.
Patient UK. Necrotising Enterocolitis. Published 2016. Available from: [LINK]
Barry. Paediatric Intensive Care. Published 2010.
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. NG143: Traffic light system for identifying risk of serious illness. Published 2019. Available from: [LINK]
NICE. Quality Standard 75: Neonatal Infection. Published 2014. Available from: [LINK]
Patient UK. Intussusception in Children. Published 2016. Available from: [LINK]
Patient UK. Hirschsprung’s Disease. Published 2018. Available from: [LINK]
Coggins et al. Infectious Causes of Necrotizing Enterocolitis. Clin Perinatol. Published 2015. Available from: [LINK]
Lissauer. Illustrated Textbook of Paediatrics. Published 2018.
Radiopedia. Rigler sign. Published 2020. Available from: [LINK]
Allin et al. One-year outcomes following surgery for necrotising enterocolitis: a UK-wide cohort study. ADC Fetal & Neonatal Edition. Published 2017. Available from: [LINK]
Figure 1. WikiRad. X-ray of an infant with necrotizing enterocolitis. License: [CC BY-SA]. Available from: [LINK].