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Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC) Symptoms

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Select Justice
December 27, 2021

Premature babies can face many battles at the start of their lives, including difficulty eating, breathing problems, and neurological issues. Often, doctors recommend that pre-term babies receive formula in addition to breastmilk to help increase their total caloric intake and help them get to and maintain a healthy weight. Recent research has shown a link between formula use in premature babies and necrotizing enterocolitis, a serious condition that can result in feeding problems, digestive issues, and in severe cases, death. 

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What Is Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC)?

NEC Symptoms
NEC Symptoms

Necrotizing enterocolitis occurs when intestinal tissue becomes inflamed and diseased. The tissue can become infected. This can stop infants from wanting to eat and can stop them from absorbing nutrients from their food. Holes may develop in the intestinal lining, which can result in digestive system bacteria leaking into other areas of the body. 

Necrotizing enterocolitis occurs most commonly in pre-term babies. NEC symptoms can be especially concerning in small babies as they are often already working to overcome other significant health conditions associated with premature birth.

It’s tough to pinpoint exactly what causes NEC, but a clear link has been shown between infant formula consumption and the development of the condition. The combination of weak immune and digestive systems in premature babies may also contribute to the onset of NEC. 

Low Feeding Tolerance

Low feeding tolerance is a common condition in premature infants and can occur with or without the presence of necrotizing enterocolitis. When infants experience low feeding tolerance, they may struggle to gain nutrition from their food. Infants may refuse to eat or may struggle to swallow. In other cases, infants are able to swallow normally but do not absorb nutrients well. Signs of low feeding tolerance can include bloody stools, gastric residuals (often presents as watery stools), diarrhea, a distended abdomen, visible bowel loops, and vomiting. While these issues are concerning in any infant, they are especially problematic in a premature baby who needs to gain weight quickly. 

Abdominal Distention 

Abdominal distention is characterized by a hard and/or swollen abdomen. Abdominal distention in infants can be caused by gas, constipation, or a more serious condition, such as necrotizing enterocolitis. 

Stomach Discoloration

Infants with necrotizing enterocolitis may experience stomach discoloration. Typically, the abdomen takes on a bluish or reddish hue. Necrotizing enterocolitis can cause a hole to form in the intestines. This can result in infection, or in fluids meant to stay within the digestive system leaking into other areas of the body, causing discoloration and other symptoms noticeable in the abdominal area. 

Abdominal Pain

It can be hard for parents to tell whether a baby is in pain, tired, hungry, or uncomfortable. When a preterm infant is inconsolable, arching their back, or refusing to eat, abdominal pain due to NEC may be occurring. Intestinal inflammation and holes can be incredibly painful for anyone, including small babies.

Bloody Stools and Other Stool Changes

Bloody stools can be a sign of inflammation or perforation of the intestinal wall associated with NEC. It’s important that parents of small babies who are at risk for NEC also keep an eye out for other stool changes, such as a change in the consistency or frequency of bowel movements. 

Diarrhea

Loose stools are concerning when a pre-term baby is working to gain weight. When diarrhea occurs, parents need to watch out for visible blood. This can be a sign of a tear in the intestinal wall. 

Lethargy and an Inability to Maintain Normal Body Temperature

Pre-term infants who develop necrotizing enterocolitis may show a decrease in activity as their body works to fight inflammation and infection. Parents who notice a sudden change in their baby’s activity level should reach out to their pediatrician. In addition to lethargy, babies experiencing NEC may also develop a fever due to the leak of bacteria from the gut into the bloodstream. Some infants with NEC also struggle to maintain a high enough body temperature. The combination of changes in body temperature and pain can significantly lower a baby’s activity level. 

Vomiting Greenish-Yellow Liquid

Inflammation of the bowel can make it difficult for food and digestive liquids to make their way through the intestine. This can result in vomiting bile. Usually, bile works to help the body digest fats in the stomach. In infants with NEC, bile may exit the body through vomit. Typically, vomit with a high amount of bile has a yellowish-green appearance. 

Low Heart Rate

Widespread infection in the body can set in quickly after an infant develops a hole in the intestinal wall. This can make it difficult for the heart to function properly. NEC can cause a drop in blood pressure or a weak pulse. This may cause the infant to go into shock. 

Breathing Difficulties

In some cases of NEC, the abdomen can fill with fluid. In others, the lining of the stomach can also become infected. These issues, paired with the pressure of a distended abdomen, can create pressure on the lungs, which may make it difficult for an infant to breathe. If breathing difficulties become increasingly severe, an infant may need a respirator to survive NEC. 

Has Your Baby Been Affected By Necrotizing Enterocolitis?

NEC Symptoms
NEC Symptoms

If your pre-term baby drank formula and later developed necrotizing enterocolitis, there may be a connection. It’s important to work with an advocacy team that can help you learn more about whether you and your baby may be entitled to financial compensation. At Select Justice, we’re here to help. Reach out to us today for a free case evaluation.

Free Case Evaluation

If your child was diagnosed with NEC, Select Justice can help you fight for your rights and compensation.

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