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Last Update: September 12, 2022.

Continuing Education Activity

Omphalitis is an infection of the umbilicus and/or surrounding tissues, primarily in the neonatal period. It is a true medical emergency that can rapidly progress to systemic infection and death, with an estimated mortality rate between 7 and 15 percent. Early recognition and treatment are essential to prevent the morbidity and mortality associated with omphalitis. This activity illustrates the evaluation and treatment of omphalitis and reviews the role of the interprofessional team in managing those with this condition.


  • Identify examination findings consistent with omphalitis.
  • Identify how to evaluate omphalitis and differentiate it from other diseases.
  • Identify the role of interprofessional team members in decreasing the morbidity and mortality associated with omphalitis.
  • Communicate how an optimally functioning interprofessional team would coordinate care to enhance outcomes for patients with omphalitis.
Access free multiple choice questions on this topic.


Omphalitis is an infection of the umbilicus and/or surrounding tissues, primarily in the neonatal period. It is limited to around the umbilicus in the majority of newborns. However, it can rapidly progress to systemic infection and death, with an estimated mortality rate between 7% to 15%.[1] Early recognition and treatment are essential to prevent the morbidity and mortality associated with omphalitis. 


Immediately after birth, the umbilicus becomes colonized with many different types of bacteria. Gram-positive cocci are present within hours, followed shortly by many enteric microorganisms. The devitalized tissues of the umbilical stump promote the rapid growth of these bacteria, and the thrombosed blood vessels allow entry into the bloodstream, potentially leading to systemic infection.


Omphalitis is uncommon beyond the neonatal age. Symptoms typically begin at an average age of 3 days. It is a rare disease in developed countries, with an incidence of 0.7%. However, in developing countries, the incidence of neonates delivered at hospitals can approach 8%, and if born at home, the incidence can be as high as 22%.[2][3] Risk factors for the development of omphalitis include low birth weight, prolonged rupture of membranes, maternal infection, umbilical catheterization, nonsterile delivery, maternal infection, prolonged labor, home birth, and improper cord care. The cultural application of cow dung, seen in developing nations, is also associated with higher rates of omphalitis. In addition, immune system abnormalities such as defective leukocyte adhesion, poor neutrophil mobility, low natural killer function, and interferon production have been associated with an increased risk of omphalitis.[4] A history of delayed separation of the umbilical cord stump and omphalitis after birth age with recurrent infections in infancy should raise the suspicion of leukocyte adhesion disorder (LAD) and an appropriate workup must be done. Apart from omphalitis, children with LAD commonly have recurrent pneumonia, soft tissue infections, gingivitis, etc.


The umbilical cord is the lifeline between the baby and mother during pregnancy and is cut after birth. The umbilical cord stump then gradually dries and typically falls off within 5 to 15 days. Both skin and enteric bacteria may colonize the devitalized tissue of the stump and lead to infection. Omphalitis is, therefore, a polymicrobial infection, and the most common pathogens are Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pyogenes, and gram-negative bacteria such as Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Proteus mirabilis.[5] If maternal infection with chorioamnionitis is suspected, anaerobic bacteria such as Bacteroides fragilis, Clostridium perfringens, and Clostridium tetani can also contribute to infection.[6]

History and Physical

Omphalitis is primarily a neonate disease characterized by tenderness, erythema, and induration of the umbilicus and surrounding tissues. Early on, patients may only have superficial cellulitis, but if untreated, this can involve the entire abdominal wall. Patients may also have purulent drainage or bleeding from the umbilical cord stump. Foul-smelling discharge should raise the suspicion of anaerobic infection. Systemic symptoms such as lethargy, poor feeding, fever, and irritability suggest sepsis and portend a worse prognosis. If there is a rapid progression of abdominal wall erythema or gas in the surrounding tissues, necrotizing fasciitis should be considered, and acute surgical consultation is needed.[7]


Laboratory evaluation with complete blood count and culture should be obtained for all patients with suspected omphalitis. In addition, if possible, cultures of any purulent material from the umbilical stump should be sent before the initiation of antibiotics. A full neonatal septic workup should be obtained if the patient has systemic symptoms, including a chest radiograph, urinalysis, urine culture, and cerebrospinal fluid culture. As omphalitis is closely linked to leucocyte adhesion disorders, a detailed workup is necessary in suspected cases. Leucocytosis, due to defective margination of leucocytes, is almost always present in LAD. Leukocyte adhesion molecules or integrins, including LFA-1/Mac-1, p150, and p95, are absent in children with LAD. Therefore, an assay of these receptors is essential in children presenting with recurrent infections and having a history of omphalitis in the neonatal age.[8]

Treatment / Management

Broad-spectrum parenteral antibiotics are required to treat omphalitis. Antibiotic coverage should be directed against both gram-positive and gram-negative organisms. Initial empiric treatment with antistaphylococcal penicillin and aminoglycoside is recommended. If there is a high prevalence of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, vancomycin should be administered while awaiting culture results. If there is suspicion of maternal chorioamnionitis or the patient has a foul-smelling discharge from the stump, clindamycin or metronidazole is indicated to cover for anaerobes.[6] The duration of antibiotic therapy depends on the patient's clinical response and any complications that may develop during hospital admission. For uncomplicated cases of omphalitis, the recommended course of parenteral therapy is ten days, followed by a switch to oral therapy, depending on culture results.

Differential Diagnosis

In most cases, the clinical picture of omphalitis is sufficient to make the diagnosis. A patent urachus, which results in direct communication between the bladder and umbilicus, can be mistaken for infection due to persistent drainage from the umbilicus. Umbilical granulomas may also be misdiagnosed as an umbilical infection because the friable tissue can cause serous or serosanguinous drainage and easy bleeding with trauma. These typically occur after the first week of life and can be distinguished by their soft, velvety texture and pinkish color. Umbilical polyps are firm masses of urachal embryologic remnants that often require surgical excision but do not cause infection.[9] If inflammation of the umbilical cord alone is present, then funisitis and not omphalitis is the diagnosis. Funisitis, caused by maternal chorioamnionitis, involves only the external surface of the cord and not the umbilical vessels. A wet, foul-smelling cord stump without any surrounding cellulitis characterizes funisitis.


Early recognition and treatment of omphalitis are essential to prevent the serious complications of this disease. Sepsis is the most common complication and can progress to septic shock and death. Other rare complications include peritonitis, intestinal gangrene, small bowel evisceration, liver abscess, septic umbilical arteritis, and portal vein thrombosis. Although uncommon, necrotizing fasciitis can occur and should be suspected if there is a rapid progression of infection and signs of systemic toxicity. It should also be suspected if there is no clinical improvement with intravenous antibiotics in 24 to 48 hours. Mortality rates as high as 60% to 85% have been reported in patients with omphalitis complicated by necrotizing fasciitis.[10] If suspected, in addition to the broad-spectrum antibiotics, prompt surgical consultation for debridement of the umbilical structures and the involved abdominal wall is essential.

Deterrence and Patient Education

Prevention of omphalitis requires both aseptic techniques during delivery services and proper cord care. The umbilical cord should be cut with a sterile blade or scissors. In the hospital setting where aseptic care is routine and the risk of omphalitis is low, dry cord care is recommended. In developing countries with a higher risk of omphalitis, chlorhexidine as a topical agent has been shown to reduce the risk of omphalitis inexpensively. In a meta-analysis of studies conducted in developing countries' community settings, chlorhexidine reduced all-cause mortality and the risk of omphalitis compared to dry cord care.[11] Inappropriate cord care has also increased the risk of umbilical infection. The cultural application of cow dung or bentonite clay to the umbilical stump has resulted in neonatal tetanus.[12]

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

Since early recognition may prevent omphalitis, the entire healthcare team must work together to ensure aseptic techniques during delivery and maintain proper cord care after delivery. The umbilical cord should be cut with a sterile blade or scissors. All team members must work towards supporting and assisting each other in keeping the field sterile, and appropriate antiseptic techniques must be maintained.

Review Questions


Güvenç H, Aygün AD, Yaşar F, Soylu F, Güvenç M, Kocabay K. Omphalitis in term and preterm appropriate for gestational age and small for gestational age infants. J Trop Pediatr. 1997 Dec;43(6):368-72. [PubMed: 9476462]
Sawardekar KP. Changing spectrum of neonatal omphalitis. Pediatr Infect Dis J. 2004 Jan;23(1):22-6. [PubMed: 14743041]
Mir F, Tikmani SS, Shakoor S, Warraich HJ, Sultana S, Ali SA, Zaidi AK. Incidence and etiology of omphalitis in Pakistan: a community-based cohort study. J Infect Dev Ctries. 2011 Dec 13;5(12):828-33. [PubMed: 22169780]
Davies EG, Isaacs D, Levinsky RJ. Defective immune interferon production and natural killer activity associated with poor neutrophil mobility and delayed umbilical cord separation. Clin Exp Immunol. 1982 Nov;50(2):454-60. [PMC free article: PMC1536700] [PubMed: 6817956]
Faridi MM, Rattan A, Ahmad SH. Omphalitis neonatorum. J Indian Med Assoc. 1993 Nov;91(11):283-5. [PubMed: 8138649]
Brook I. Cutaneous and subcutaneous infections in newborns due to anaerobic bacteria. J Perinat Med. 2002;30(3):197-208. [PubMed: 12122901]
Ameh EA, Nmadu PT. Major complications of omphalitis in neonates and infants. Pediatr Surg Int. 2002 Sep;18(5-6):413-6. [PubMed: 12415368]
Justiz Vaillant AA, Ahmad F. StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing; Treasure Island (FL): Jul 3, 2023. Leukocyte Adhesion Deficiency. [PubMed: 30969592]
Oğuzkurt P, Kotiloğlu E, Tanyel FC, Hiçsönmez A. Umbilical polyp originating from urachal remnants. Turk J Pediatr. 1996 Jul-Sep;38(3):371-4. [PubMed: 8827909]
Hsieh WS, Yang PH, Chao HC, Lai JY. Neonatal necrotizing fasciitis: a report of three cases and review of the literature. Pediatrics. 1999 Apr;103(4):e53. [PubMed: 10103345]
Sinha A, Sazawal S, Pradhan A, Ramji S, Opiyo N. Chlorhexidine skin or cord care for prevention of mortality and infections in neonates. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015 Mar 05;2015(3):CD007835. [PMC free article: PMC10638659] [PubMed: 25739381]
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Neonatal tetanus--Montana, 1998. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 1998 Nov 06;47(43):928-30. [PubMed: 9822366]

Disclosure: Kelly Painter declares no relevant financial relationships with ineligible companies.

Disclosure: Sachit Anand declares no relevant financial relationships with ineligible companies.

Disclosure: Ken Philip declares no relevant financial relationships with ineligible companies.

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