What Is Omphalitis?

J.M. Willhite

Omphalitis is an infection of the umbilical cord stump. Frequently associated with exposure to a bacterial organism, omphalitis infection carries significant risk for complications, including abscess and tissue death. Antibiotic medication is generally given to alleviate infection. Surgery may be necessary if complications develop.

An umbilical cord is a thick, blood-rich cord that connects a baby to its mother during the gestation process.
An umbilical cord is a thick, blood-rich cord that connects a baby to its mother during the gestation process.

A diagnosis of omphalitis may be made with a visual examination of the umbilical cord stump. Severe infection can cause a pronounced lesion, known as bullous impetigo, which is easily identified. A culture of the affected tissue may be taken to identify the bacterium responsible for the infection.

Treatment for omphalitis is centered on healing the infection.
Treatment for omphalitis is centered on healing the infection.

Bacterial exposure can occur during the birthing process or shortly thereafter. Common pathogens associated with omphalitis include strep, tetanus, and staph. Historically, omphalitis carried a significantly high mortality rate. The application of cleansing and topical anti-infecting agents to the umbilical area shortly after birth, a common practice today, has dramatically reduced the risk for infection.

In addition to preventive medication administered at the hospital, new parents are usually instructed on how to properly care for the umbilical stump. Keeping the area clean and dry are keys to reducing the risk for infection. At the first sign of infection, including tenderness, fever, or inflammation, medical treatment should be sought.

Omphalitis infection is easy to visually identify. Symptoms seen shortly after birth include inflammation and discoloration of the umbilical region. In some cases, a raised nodule containing fluid or pus, known as a granuloma, may form on or near the stump. The immediate area of infection will usually adopt a reddish hue that turns dark as the infection progresses. Omphalitis will also cause additional symptoms, including abdominal swelling, low blood pressure, and an irregular heartbeat.

If infection occurs and treatment is delayed or absent, serious complications can occur. Not only may the infection spread to other parts of the body or enter the bloodstream, but affected tissues are at risk for necrosis, or tissue death. Additionally, the abdominal tissues and organs may become inflamed and distended. In some cases, the accumulation of infection and pus may contribute to the formation of an abscess on or near the stump.

Treatment for omphalitis is centered on healing the infection. An aggressive round of antibiotics is administered and the umbilical region is monitored. Severe infection can necessitate the intravenous administration of antibiotics. If complications develop, surgery may be performed to alleviate swelling and remove any diseased or abscessed tissues.

Fever is a potential warning sign of an infection.
Fever is a potential warning sign of an infection.

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