tracheoesophageal fistula

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Tracheoesophageal Fistula



Tracheoesophageal fistula (TEF) is commonly a birth defect, with the trachea connected to the esophagus. In most cases, the esophagus is discontinuous, causing immediate feeding difficulties. TEFs may develop in adult life, secondary to the invasion of cancer in the area. In addition, TEFs may be deliberately constructed with surgery to aid talking in a patient who has the larynx removed (a laryngectomy).


The trachea, or windpipe, carries air to the lungs. The esophagus carries food to the stomach. Sometimes during development, these two tubes do not separate completely, but remain connected by a short passage. When this happens, air enters the gastrointestinal system, causing the bowels to distend, and mucus is breathed into the lungs causing aspiration pneumonia and breathing problems.
Most tracheoesophageal fistulas are diagnosed when a child is born. There are three types. In 85-90% of tracheoesophageal fistulas, the top part of the esophagus ends in a blind sac, and the lower part inserts into the trachea. In the second type, the upper part of the esophagus is connected directly to the trachea, while the lower part ends in a pouch. In a rare type of fistula called an H type, both the esophagus and trachea are complete, but they are connected. This is the most difficult type of tracheoesophageal fistula to diagnose, because both eating and breathing are possible.

Causes and symptoms

Tracheoesophageal fistulas arise as a developmental abnormality. At birth, the infant has difficulty swallowing. Eating produces severe coughing spells that interfere with breathing. Aspiration pneumonia can develop from fluid breathed into the lungs.
Small H type fistulas may go undiagnosed until later in life. Symptoms of an H type fistula include frequent pulmonary infections and bouts of abdominal bloating.


Diagnosis that the esophagus is interrupted is confirmed by the inability to insert a nasogastric suction tube into the stomach. The exact type and location of the fistula can be determined using a radiopaque catheter, which allows pictures to be taken of the esophagus. X rays may show air in the bowels. Endoscopy often fails to located the fistula if it is small.


Babies with all but H type fistulas are unlikely to survive without surgical separation and repair of the trachea and the esophagus. Surgery cannot always be performed immediately because of prematurity, the presence of other birth defects, or complications from aspiration pneumonia. It is usually done at a hospital that has special facilities for treating seriously ill newborns.
While awaiting surgery, the infant's condition is stabilized. Preoperative care concentrates on avoiding aspiration pneumonia and includes:
  • elevating the head to avoid reflux and aspiration of the stomach contents
  • using a suction catheter to continuously removed mucus and saliva that could be inhaled
  • when necessary, placement of a gastrostomy tube
  • withholding feeding by mouth
When surgery is performed, the esophagus is reconnected to make it continuous and separate from the trachea. If the two ends of the esophagus are too far apart to be reattached, a piece of tissue from the large intestine is used to join the parts.


Infants who have tracheoesophageal fistula often have other birth defects that affect their recovery. Even when the esophagus is successfully separated and reattached, many infants have difficulty swallowing, because the contractility of the esophagus is impaired. Infants may also have problems with gastroesophageal reflux, in which the acidic contents of the stomach back up into the bottom of the esophagus and cause ulcers and scarring.


Tracheoesophageal fistulas are not preventable birth defects.



Berktow, Robert, editor. "Gastrointestinal Defects." In The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. Rahway, NJ: Merck Research Laboratories, 2004.

Key terms

Endoscopy — A procedure in which an instrument containing a camera and a light source is inserted into the gastrointestinal tract so that the physician can visually inspect the gastrointestinal system.
Gastrostomy tube — Stomach tube for feeding.
Laryngectomy — Surgical removal of the larynx to treat cancer.

tra·che·o·e·soph·a·ge·al fis·tu·la

fistulous passage connecting the trachea and esophagus; often associated with esophageal atresia; may also be acquired; in the adult, etiology is similar to that of bronchoesophageal fistula.
Synonym(s): T-E fistula

tracheoesophageal fistula

Etymology: Gk, tracheia + oisophagos, gullet
a congenital malformation in which there is an abnormal tubelike passage between the trachea and the esophagus. Also spelled tracheooesophageal fistula.

tracheoesophageal fistula

Neonatology A congenital communication between the lower esophagus and trachea, often complicated by aspiration into the lungs, causing pneumonia, choking and possibly death; TEFs are usually detected after birth when feeding is attempted and the infant coughs, chokes and becomes cyanotic; they are a surgical emergency, requiring immediate repair to prevent permanent damage. See Esophageal atresia.

tra·che·o·e·soph·a·ge·al fis·tu·la

(trā'kē-ō-ē-sof-ā'jē-ăl fis'chū-lă)
Neonatal gastrointestinal disorder in which a connection exists between the esophagus and the trachea. It may result in gastric juice reflux after feeding, allowing gastric acids to cross the fistula, thus irritating the trachea.


pertaining to or arising from the trachea and the esophagus.

tracheoesophageal fistula
a communication between the trachea and the esophagus; can occur during fetal life due to faulty separation of the laryngotracheal groove from the foregut; often associated with esophageal stenosis or atresia, aspiration pneumonia.
tracheoesophageal ridge
primordium of the embryonic tracheoesophageal septum.
tracheoesophageal septum
the partition which develops by fusion of the tracheoesophageal ridges; completes the separation of the trachea and esophagus in the developing embryo.
tracheoesophageal stripe sign
in x-rays, the dorsal wall of the trachea and the adjacent ventral wall of the esophagus may be visualized because of air in the esophagus.
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The tracheo-esophageal fistula was resected and closed using interrupted Prolene 5/0 sutures.
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Given the radiological findings and unsuccessful attempts to eliminate the air leak, it was determined that the most likely explanation was the presence of a tracheo-esophageal fistula (TEF) FOB was planned again.
Genetic factors in esophageal atresia, tracheo-esophageal fistula and the VACTERL association: Roles for FOXF1 and the 16q24.
We would like to clarify that the term Vater sequence is currently not appropriate and it has been replaced by the term VACTERL association from the acronym vertebral defects, anal atresia, cardiac defects, tracheo-esophageal fistula, renal malformations, and limb defects (4).
Irregularities negatively linked to clefts were congenital heart defects, spina bifida, and VATER complex (vertebral defects, imperforate anus, tracheo-esophageal fistula, and radial and renal dysplasia).
Nina was born at 31 weeks gestation and was diagnosed with Trisomy 21; patent ductus arteriosis, repaired in the first month of life; tracheo-esophageal fistula, which was repaired at 2 months of age; AV Canal; cleft palate, unrepaired; and gastroesophageal reflux with a Nissen fundoplication and gastric tube placed in the first month of life.
After 10 days of broad-spectrum antibiotics and with progressing infiltrates, a computed tomography scan of the chest revealed a right lung abscess, a tracheo-esophageal fistula, and a right pleural effusion.
Incidence of selected malformations reported to the Birth Defects Monitoring Program, 1970-1971 and 1976-1977 Cases Malformation 1970-1971 1976-1977 change Anencephaly 949 833 Spina bifida without anencephaly 1,306 1,053 Hydrocephalus without spina bifida 833 925 Transposition of great vessels 131 175 Ventricular septal defect 770 1,889 Patent ductus arteriosus 686 2,804 Cleft palate without cleft lip 873 1,093 Cleft lip with or without cleft palate 1,715 1,890 Clubfoot without CNS([dagger]) defects 4,756 4,912 Reduction deformity 547 705 Hip dislocation without CNS defects 1,382 6,407 Tracheo-esophageal fistula 289 327 Rectal atresia and stenosis 648 679 Renal agenesis 123 263 Hypospadias 3,565 5,036 Down's syndrome 1,413 1,590 Rates(*) 1970-1971 1976-1977 Anencephaly 5.