Omphalitis, a bacterial infection of the umbilical stump, begins in the neonatal period as a superficial cellulitis but may track along umbilical vessels and progress to systemic illness.


  • Episodes of omphalitis are usually sporadic.
  • Mean age of onset is 5 to 9 days in term infants and 3 to 5 days in preterm infants.
  • Omphalitis is rare in developed countries, with an incidence of approximately 1 out of 1,000 live births, but in developing countries, incidence may be upward of 8–22% of infants, depending on risk factors.

Risk Factors

  • Low birth weight
  • Prior umbilical catheterization
  • Septic delivery
  • Home birth
  • Prolonged rupture of membranes
  • Chorioamnionitis/funisitis

General Prevention

  • There are multiple methods used for umbilical cord care, including dry cord care, triple dye, 4% chlorhexidine, and 70% alcohol solution.
  • Clean, dry cord care is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and World Health Organization (WHO) for infants born in a hospital setting in developed countries.
  • Aseptic delivery and hygienic cord care, including cutting the cord in a sterile manner (with gloves and sterile instruments), are key to preventing infection.
  • There is significant evidence to support the use of topical 4% chlorhexidine in infants born at home in settings with high neonatal mortality (>30 deaths per 1,000 live births).
  • There is no evidence that application of an antiseptic to the umbilical cord is better than clean, dry cord care in a hospital setting.


  • Once the umbilical cord is cut after birth, the stump dries and falls of within 5 to 15 days.
  • The umbilical stump is colonized by microorganisms soon after birth, both pathogenic and nonpathogenic.
  • Pathogenic bacteria may invade the umbilical stump, leading to omphalitis.
    • The type of organisms present varies depending on the birth setting and quality of cord care.
    • In high-resource settings, gram-positive organisms are most likely, and gram-negative organisms are more common in low-resource settings.
  • Omphalitis may present in varying severity:
    • Funisitis/umbilical discharge—abnormal-appearing umbilical cord and purulent, malodorous discharge
    • Omphalitis with associated cellulitis—periumbilical erythema and tenderness in addition to cord discharge
    • Omphalitis with systemic signs of infection
    • Omphalitis with necrotizing fasciitis—crepitus, bullae, and evidence of involvement of superficial and deep fascia, often associated with septic shock
  • Unhygienic cord care, as well as the application of harmful substances to the umbilical cord, can lead to an increased incidence of omphalitis in developing countries.
  • Established aerobic bacterial infection, necrotic tissue, and poor blood supply facilitate the growth of anaerobic organisms.


  • The most common causative organisms are gram-positive cocci, including Staphylococcus aureus (MSSA and methicillin-resistant S. aureus [MRSA]), group A and group B streptococci.
  • Gram-negative pathogens include Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Pseudomonas species, and Proteus mirabilis.
  • Gram-positive organisms predominate; however, antistaphylococcal cord care has led to an increase in colonization and infection with gram-negative organisms.
  • Anaerobic bacteria, including Bacteroides fragilis and Clostridium perfringens, are most likely in cases complicated by necrotizing fasciitis or myonecrosis.
  • Clostridium tetani and Clostridium sordellii are seen primarily in developing countries when unhygienic instruments may be used to cut the cord and/or cow dung is used in cord care.

Commonly Associated Conditions

  • Leukocyte adhesion deficiency (LAD)
    • Omphalitis may be the initial manifestation of one of the LADs.
    • LADs are rare, autosomal recessive immunologic disorders affecting leukocyte adhesion to blood vessel walls.
    • Cord separation requires the influx of leukocytes; therefore, this deficiency causes delayed separation and can cause concomitant omphalitis.
    • Infants also may present with leukocytosis, absence of pus formation, impaired wound healing, and recurrent infections localized to the skin and mucosal surfaces.
    • Treatment involves prompt recognition of infection and use of appropriate antibiotics. Severe cases may need hematopoietic stem cell transplantation.
  • Neutropenia
    • Omphalitis complicated by sepsis can be associated with neutropenia.
    • Other syndromes of neonatal neutropenia may present initially with omphalitis.
      • Neonatal alloimmune neutropenia: Maternal IgG antibodies cross the placenta and cause immune-mediated destruction of fetal neutrophils bearing antigens differing from mother’s.
      • Other causes of neutropenia: autoimmune neutropenias, X-linked agammaglobulinemia, hyper-IgM immunodeficiency syndromes, HIV, glycogen storage disease type IB, or disorders of amino acid metabolism
  • Anatomic abnormalities
    • Patent urachus:
      • The urachus, a tubular structure connecting the bladder to the umbilicus, should obliterate by the fifth gestational month.
      • If it remains patent, a continuous, significant amount of urine can drain from the umbilicus.
    • Persistent omphalomesenteric duct:
      • Congenital malformation where a communication exists between the umbilicus and the gut
      • Drainage consists of intestinal secretions.
    • Excessive granulation tissue:
      • Results from delayed healing of cord stump
      • Drainage is serosanguinous and pink.
  • Considerations in preterm infants:
    • Preterm infants are more susceptible secondary to immature immune defenses (including the skin) and possible umbilical catheterization.
    • These infants are more likely to present with omphalitis at an earlier age and with low neutrophil counts.

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