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Underdeveloped Lungs and Prematurity

Particularly when an infant is born before 36 weeks' gestation, the premature infant's lungs are immature, and the body has limited muscle strength and energy for breathing. So the premature infant may not get enough oxygen. This can cause serious medical complications. It is common at birth for a premature infant to need oxygen therapy, a ventilator, and/or medicine to help with oxygen absorption and breathing.

Infants whose lungs have been quickly matured with corticosteroid treatment before birth (antenatal corticosteroids, given by injection to the mother) have a lot fewer medical complications than those who are not treated.

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Infants with underdeveloped lungs often lack surfactant, a substance that coats the airways, preventing them from collapsing and sticking together. When premature lungs are treated with surfactant after birth, the infant's blood oxygen levels usually improve within minutes. Surfactant treatment reduces the risk and the severity of respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) in premature infants as well as the overall risk of death.1 Surfactant also helps treat RDS.

Unlike corticosteroid treatment before birth, giving corticosteroids to a baby after birth (postnatal) is losing favor in the medical community. Current research is focusing on how this medicine can be safely used to improve lung function without causing neurological deficits, gastrointestinal bleeding and damage, blood sugar problems, and high blood pressure.

Citations

  1. Fraser J, et al. (2004). ABC of preterm birth: Respiratory complications of preterm birth. BMJ, 329(7472): 962-965.

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Sarah Marshall, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer John Pope, MD - Pediatrics
Last Revised April 14, 2011

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: April 14, 2011
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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