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.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

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
Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary © Farlex 2012

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.
McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

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.
Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing © Farlex 2012
References in periodicals archive ?
Diagnostic difficulties in the management of H-type tracheoesophageal fistula. Acta Radiol 2006; 47: 801-5.
Tracheal stenosis complicated with tracheoesophageal fistula. Eur J Cardiothorac Surg 2004; 25: 127-30.
Tracheoesophageal fistula in an HIV-1-positive man due to dual infection of candida albicans and cytomegalovirus.
Gastric motility disorders in patients operated on for esophageal atresia and tracheoesophageal fistula: long-term evaluation.
Giant acquired tracheoesophageal fistula: Strategy for successful management.
[1.] Quan L, Smith DW The VATER association: Vertebral defects, anal atresia, tracheoesophageal fistula with esophageal atresia, radial dysplasia.
TTF-1 and HNF-3b in the developing tracheoesophageal fistula: further evidence for the respiratory origin of the distal esophagus.
Sian was born with tracheoesophageal fistula, where the gullet and food pipe are not connected.
He is a twin who suffers from a number of ailments but especially a condition called tracheoesophageal fistula with long gap atreasia.
Endoscopic treatment of recurrent tracheoesophageal fistula. Long-term results.
Endoscopic Management of Recurrent Tracheoesophageal Fistula with Fibringlue and Electrocautery