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Esophageal atresia

Last updated: March 23, 2021

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Esophageal atresia is a congenital defect in which the upper esophagus is not connected to the lower esophagus, ending blindly instead. It is caused by the abnormal development of the tracheoesophageal septum. Esophageal atresia with a fistula connected distally to the trachea is the most common kind of esophageal malformation (classified as Gross type C). It manifests immediately after birth with cyanotic attacks, foaming at the mouth, and coughing, and prevents any attempts to pass a feeding tube into the stomach. X‑ray is mandatory for classifying the atresia and should show an air‑filled pouch situated at the level of the third thoracic vertebra. Infants with suspected esophageal atresia cannot be fed orally because of the risk of aspiration pneumonia. Curative surgery must, therefore, be performed within the first 24 hours after birth.

Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.

Types Description Percentage
Type A
  • ∼ 8% of cases
Type B
  • ∼ 3% of cases
Type C
  • ∼ 84% of cases
Type D
  • ∼ 1% of cases
Type E
  • ∼ 4% of cases




Postnatal [5]

Newborns usually present with symptoms directly after birth! The exception is the Gross type E fistula: The diagnosis of a small H‑type tracheoesophageal fistula may occur as late as adulthood.

Double aortic arch


Differential diagnoses of newborn swallowing disorders [2][8]
Differential diagnosis Findings
Esophageal atresia
Status post C‑section
  • Excessive secretions
  • Reversible condition, as opposed to esophageal atresia
Choanal atresia
  • Cyanotic attacks
  • Attacks normalize after crying or opening the mouth
Esophageal stenosis
  • Delayed diagnosis (after introduction of solid food)
  • Dysphagia
  • Regurgitation
  • Very rare during childhood
  • Delayed diagnosis (after introduction of solid food)
  • Dysphagia
  • Regurgitation
Defective swallowing reflex

The differential diagnoses listed here are not exhaustive.


Infants who potentially have esophageal atresia should not be fed orally under any circumstances!


Surgical treatment should be performed within the first 24 hours of birth.


  • Uncomplicated surgery: transition to a normal diet after 2–3 days [3]
  • Anastomosis under tension: postoperative ventilation (for approx. 5 days)
  • Radiological examination with a contrast agent (esophagram) one week after surgery to identify complications: e.g., esophageal stricture or anastomotic leak [2]
  • Approx. 4 weeks after the procedure: Gastroscopy (EGD) and dilation of the anastomosis may be necessary.

Overall good prognosis, but surgical complications occur frequently:

  1. Facts about Esophageal Atresia. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/birthdefects/esophagealatresia.html#ref. Updated: November 1, 2018. Accessed: November 1, 2019.
  2. Puri P, Höllwarth M. Pediatric Surgery: Diagnosis and Management. Springer ; 2009
  3. Pinheiro PF, Simões e silva AC, Pereira RM. Current knowledge on esophageal atresia. World J Gastroenterol. 2012; 18 (28): p.3662-3672. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v18.i28.3662 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  4. Polin RA, Abman SH, Rowitch D, Benitz WE. Fetal and Neonatal Physiology. Elsevier ; 2016
  5. Clark DC. Esophageal Atresia and Tracheoesophageal Fistula. Am Fam Physician. 1999; 59 (4): p.910-916.
  6. Pretorius DH, Drose JA, Dennis MA, Manchester DK, Manco-johnson ML. Tracheoesophageal fistula in utero. Twenty-two cases. J Ultrasound Med. 1987; 6 (9): p.509-513.
  7. Shah RK, Mora BN, Bacha E, et al. The presentation and management of vascular rings: An otolaryngology perspective. Int J Pediatr Otorhinolaryngol. 2007; 71 (1): p.57-62. doi: 10.1016/j.ijporl.2006.08.025 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  8. Serrao E, Santos A, Gaivao A, Tavares A, Ferreira S. Congenital esophageal stenosis: a rare case of dysphagia. J Radiol Case Rep. 2010; 4 (6): p.8-14. doi: 10.3941/jrcr.v4i6.422 . | Open in Read by QxMD