What is colonic atresia?
Colonic atresia is a congenital (present at birth) condition in which part of the colon (large intestine) is completely blocked or missing. The condition occurs when parts of a fetus’s large intestine don’t develop properly.
Colonic atresia can range from mild to severe depending on the type and location of the bowel obstruction. Some babies can have a large section missing from their colon, while others may have a small intestinal blockage.
During fetal development, a baby’s stomach contents flow freely through their intestines, which absorb nutrients that help the baby grow. With colonic atresia, the large intestine gets much bigger just before the bowel obstruction. The intestine can no longer absorb nutrients or pass anything through.
Colonic atresia is a type of intestinal atresia, which involves blocked or missing sections anywhere along the small intestine. In some cases, babies born with colonic atresia have other congenital conditions that affect the intestines, eyes, heart or bones.
Without treatment, colonic atresia can cause the intestine to stretch so much that it tears. Other complications include dehydration and infection.
What causes colonic atresia?
Colonic atresia occurs when blood flow to the large intestine is compromised while the fetus is developing. The problem may be:
- Blood vessels that supply the large intestine stop developing or don’t develop.
- A twist or compressed area in the large intestine cuts off the blood supply.
Who gets colonic atresia?
Colonic atresia develops in males and females equally, occurring in one in 20,000 births.
What are the signs and symptoms of colonic atresia?
Doctors can sometimes see signs of colonic atresia in a prenatal ultrasound. These signs include:
- Enlarged, fluid-filled sections of the large intestine
- Fluid buildup (ascites) in the fetus’s abdomen due to a perforation in the large intestine
- Irritation and inflammation in the belly’s inner lining (meconium peritonitis) due to leaking bowel contents
- Rarely, excess amniotic fluid (the fluid surrounding and protecting your baby in the uterus)
Signs that may appear soon after birth include:
- Bloating or swelling of the baby’s belly
- Failure to pass stool
- Vomiting, which may appear green if it contains bile
What tests are used to diagnose colonic atresia?
If your doctor suspects that your baby has colonic atresia, our fetal care specialists can confirm a diagnosis using a targeted fetal ultrasound and fetal MRI. Our experts have the specialized experience it takes to detect bowel obstruction before birth. We thoroughly examine your baby’s bones and heart to check for other congenital conditions that can occur with colonic atresia.
If the imaging studies shows other problems, we may recommend that you have an amniocentesis to test for chromosomal abnormalities. Your doctor uses a small needle to take a sample of amniotic fluid from the uterus for this test.
If colonic atresia isn’t detected before birth, our neonatal care specialists thoroughly evaluate your baby to assess their symptoms. Tests include:
- A physical exam
- Imaging of your baby’s belly with X-rays
How is colonic atresia treated?
If we diagnose your baby with colonic atresia before birth, we monitor you closely throughout your pregnancy. Colonic atresia has no treatment options before birth. You can deliver vaginally unless there are other health reasons for a cesarean section.
Your baby will need surgery in the newborn period to address the blockage in the large intestine. Treatment after delivery focuses on stabilizing your baby to prepare for surgery:
- Your baby’s care team passes a nasogastric tube (a small, soft tube) through your baby’s nose, down their esophagus and into their stomach. Using the tube, we remove excess air and fluids to relieve swelling, reduce the risk of a perforation of the intestine and prevent vomiting.
- Your baby receives intravenous (IV) fluids and electrolytes (essential minerals) to prevent dehydration.
- They may also receive antibiotics to prevent infection.
The type of surgery your baby needs will depend on the location and severity of the bowel obstruction. With colonic atresia, there can be large size differences between the bowel above and below the blockage. In some cases, the bowel can be sewn together. In others, babies might need a temporary colostomy where stool empties into a bag.
Why choose us for treatment of colonic atresia?
Finding out that your baby may have colonic atresia can be distressing, especially if there are other health problems. The Colorado Fetal Care Center offers the latest advances in treatment and care for colonic atresia.
Our neonatal and pediatric surgeons have extensive experience caring for this condition and will create a care plan that suits your baby’s needs. Read more about our fetal specialists and surgeons and their teams, who will help your family through this journey to a healthy delivery and beyond.
Will colonic atresia occur in a future pregnancy?
It’s rare for people to have another baby with colonic atresia.
If my baby needs a colostomy, is it permanent?
No, it can be reversed after the dilation in the upper bowel has resolved.