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    Tracheoesophageal Fistula: Causes, Symptoms, Risks & Treatment

    Symptoms & Illnesses

    Tracheoesophageal Fistula: Causes, Symptoms, Risks & Treatment

    Updated on 15 May 2023

    Tracheoesophageal fistula (TEF) is a rare and complex condition that can be a source of worry and confusion for parents, caregivers, and individuals. It refers to an abnormal connection between the windpipe and the food pipe that can cause serious health issues.

    However, with the right treatment, the condition can be cured. Being aware of the causes, symptoms, risks, and types of TEF or tracheoesophageal fistula types can help you better understand the condition.

    What is tracheoesophageal fistula?

    Tracheoesophageal fistula definition: A tracheoesophageal fistula (TEF) is a rare birth defect where a connection forms between the trachea (windpipe) and the esophagus (food tube). This means that food, drink, and saliva can pass into the trachea, instead of going to the stomach.

    Who is affected by a tracheoesophageal fistula?

    Tracheoesophageal fistula is most commonly found in infants, but it can also occur in adults.

    Prevalence of tracheoesophageal fistula

    The prevalence of tracheoesophageal fistula is estimated to affect 1 in 2,000 to 3,000 live births. However, due to advances in medical technology and improved screening facilities, early detection and treatment may be possible.

    Types of tracheoesophageal fistula

    There are five distinct tracheoesophageal fistula types, namely,

    1. Type A:

    Esophageal atresia (EA) is a condition in which the esophagus is split into two sections, each of which ends in a concealed bag.

    2. Type B:

    TEF type B is a relatively less common condition in which the top section is attached to the windpipe by a tracheoesophageal fistula and the lower portion terminates in a concealed bag.

    3. Type C:

    Type C esophageal fistula is the most common form of tracheo esophageal fistula (TEF). It is distinguished by an upper esophagus that terminates in a concealed bag and a relatively low esophagus that is connected to the trachea by the fistula.

    4. Type D:

    Type D is the rarest form and is when both the upper and lower portions are connected to the trachea by a tracheoesophageal fistula.

    5. Type E:

    Lastly, type E is when the esophagus is connected to the stomach normally but is connected to the trachea by a tracheoesophageal fistula.

    Symptoms of tracheoesophageal fistula

    The most common tracheoesophageal fistula symptoms include:

    1. Coughing or choking during feedings
    2. Difficulty swallowing or refusing to eat
    3. Recurrent respiratory infections
    4. Wheezing or noisy breathing
    5. Fluid coming from the nose
    6. Vomiting
    7. Aspiration pneumonia
    8. Abdominal pain
    9. Loss of weight or failure to gain weight
    10. Bluish skin color due to lack of oxygen
    11. Swelling of the neck

    Causes of tracheoesophageal fistula

    The pathophysiology of a tracheoesophageal fistula is complex and the causes can vary.

    • It is most commonly caused by a defect in the development of the fetus.
    • It can also be associated with other conditions such as Down syndrome, trisomy 18, or CHARGE syndrome.
    • Injury to the trachea and esophagus can also lead to TEF. This can include trauma from an accident, medical procedure, or even intubation.
    • Rarely, an infection can cause inflammation of the trachea and esophagus, which can lead to a fistula.
    • In some cases, malignant tumors can cause TEF.

    How is a tracheoesophageal fistula diagnosed?

    A tracheoesophageal fistula (TEF) can be diagnosed with a variety of tests, including a physical exam, chest X-ray, barium meal, and esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD).

    Additionally, a CT scan can be used to diagnose a TEF. It is a type of imaging test that uses X-rays to create detailed pictures of the inside of the body. A CT scan can show the connection between the trachea and the esophagus.

    Treatment for tracheoesophageal fistula

    Tracheoesophageal fistula treatment depends on the severity of the condition. In some cases, surgery is necessary to repair the connection between the trachea and esophagus. Other treatments may include medications, intravenous fluids, and a tube placed in the stomach to help with feeding.

    Apart from these, more effective treatments are being searched for by studying the tracheoesophageal fistula pathophysiology.

    Risks of tracheoesophageal fistula

    If a tracheoesophageal fistula is left untreated, it can be life-threatening. Besides, tracheoesophageal fistula causes several complications, including:

    • Pneumonia
    • Dehydration
    • Malnutrition

    Preventions to take for tracheoesophageal fistula

    Unfortunately, there are no known ways to prevent tracheoesophageal fistula. It is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of TEF and seek medical attention if they are present. Tracheoesophageal fistula management involves close monitoring of the patient along with medical treatments that are tailored to the individual's needs.

    How will my baby's tracheoesophageal fistula affect me?

    If your baby is diagnosed with tracheoesophageal fistula, it is important to remember that it is a treatable condition. While it may be a stressful and difficult time, the prognosis is generally very good with early diagnosis and treatment. It is important to speak to your doctor or healthcare provider about any concerns that you may have.

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    Written by

    Roohi Kalra

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