Esophageal atresia is a birth defect in a baby whose esophagus doesn’t connect correctly with its stomach. The problem, which develops before birth, can cause choking and breathing problems in the newborn. The baby is surgically treated as soon as possible.
The esophagus is a tube that carries food and liquids from your mouth to your stomach. Esophageal atresia is a digestive system disorder where a fetus's esophagus develops abnormally before birth.
In babies with esophageal atresia, the esophagus doesn’t connect correctly to the stomach. This malformation can cause choking and breathing problems. It prevents all food from reaching the stomach after swallowing.
Esophageal atresia is a congenital disability (birth defect), which means that it forms during a baby’s development before birth. It often occurs with another problem called tracheoesophageal fistula. A fistula is an unusual connection in your body. With a tracheoesophageal fistula, the esophagus connects to the trachea (windpipe) instead of the stomach.
Doctors diagnose esophageal atresia in about 1 of every 4,300 babies in the U.S. every year.
Signs and symptoms of esophageal atresia usually appear as soon as a baby is born. They can include:
We’re not sure what causes esophageal atresia. It occurs during fetal development. Mutations (changes) to genes may cause the esophagus to develop abnormally.
The esophagus and trachea form at about the same time in the uterus. In fetuses with esophageal atresia, the esophagus doesn’t form into one long tube between the fetal mouth and stomach. Instead, the esophagus may be in two sections that have closed ends or link to the trachea.
Doctors have found links between esophageal atresia and other factors. These factors include advanced paternal age (a father over age 40) and fertility treatments including intrauterine insemination and in vitro fertilization.
If your baby coughs or chokes when trying to feed after birth, your provider may suspect esophageal atresia. To check, your provider may insert a feeding tube into your baby’s nose or mouth to see if the tube can travel all the way to the stomach.
An esophageal atresia diagnosis is usually confirmed with an X-ray, which shows any abnormal development of the esophagus.
In rare cases, esophageal atresia is diagnosed before birth during a prenatal ultrasound. This imaging test uses sound waves to create an image of the fetus on a monitor. Pregnancies affected by esophageal atresia commonly develop a build-up of amniotic fluid called polyhydramnios.
Doctors classify esophageal atresia into types based on where the problem with the esophagus occurs. The kinds of esophageal atresia are:
Esophageal atresia can be life-threatening, so the baby has to be treated quickly. Doctors perform surgery to connect the esophagus to the stomach in babies with this condition.
Babies who are otherwise healthy have surgery just a few days after they are born. Babies with other health issues or disabilities at birth may need to wait to have surgery for esophageal atresia. If your baby has to wait for surgery, they will receive nutrition through an IV (a tiny tube inserted into a vein) until the operation occurs.
About half of all babies with esophageal atresia also have other congenital disabilities such as heart, kidney and spinal problems.
Even after surgery, babies with esophageal atresia may experience complications including:
You cannot prevent esophageal atresia. People with a higher risk of having a baby with esophageal atresia include:
You can reduce your risk of having a baby with any congenital disability by maintaining a healthy pregnancy that includes:
Many cases of esophageal atresia are treated successfully. In some cases, babies are able to eat about a week after surgery takes place.
Complications of esophageal atresia such as GERD and scar tissue can cause long-term issues. In some cases, babies with esophageal atresia need to continue treatments, including medications or additional surgeries, to make sure they keep healthy breathing and eating.
Doctors diagnose esophageal atresia immediately after your baby is born if feeding problems occur. Call your doctor right away if your baby coughs, chokes or has a bluish tint to the skin when feeding.
If your baby has esophageal atresia, you may want to ask your doctor:
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/31/2020.
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