Meconium aspiration syndrome is a respiratory disorder that affects about five percent of newborn babies worldwide. It occurs when an infant inhales fecal matter known as meconium before, during, or immediately after birth. A number of factors can contribute to the disorder, including diabetes and high blood pressure in the mother, a long, difficult delivery, or various types of fetal distress. Meconium aspiration syndrome can lead to skin discoloration, difficulty breathing, a slowed heart rate, and possibly death if it is not recognized and treated right away. When doctors are able to identify and treat symptoms, however, most infants are able to recover in two to four days with no long-term health problems.
Unborn babies receive nourishment from amniotic fluid, the protein-rich liquid produced in the womb that is swallowed and inhaled. Ingested amniotic fluid is processed and expelled as meconium, watery stools that are odorless and usually harmless to the mother and the baby. Problems arise only if meconium is mixed in with healthy amniotic fluid and inhaled again. Excessive amounts of meconium in the lungs can block air passages, lower oxygen levels in the blood, and cause severe inflammation and irritation.
An infant who suffers from meconium aspiration syndrome usually exhibits several symptoms, including rapid, shallow breathing, and green or blue tinted skin. Many babies are limp or have difficulty moving because of their labored breathing. Other indicators of excessive meconium levels include the presence of discolored or thick amniotic fluid at birth. Doctors can check for signs of meconium aspiration syndrome in an unborn baby by using a fetal monitor, a device which that tracks changes in heart rate. After birth, an obstetrician can diagnose the disorder by listening to the newborn's lungs with a stethoscope, checking for unusual noises or other signs of airway obstruction. A physician may also conduct a blood analysis to detect low oxygen levels or x-ray the infant's chest to look for lung obstructions.
A physician or nurse usually tries to relieve symptoms by suctioning excessive meconium out of an afflicted infant's lungs using an endotracheal tube. Some babies need breathing machines to help regulate their respiratory systems or antibiotics to ward off infections from fecal matter. An infant who is not treated immediately is at risk of contracting pneumonia or suffering from permanent brain damage. The prognosis for babies who are treated for meconium aspiration syndrome, however, is generally very good; the majority of individuals experience no lasting lung problems or other negative health effects.