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Hydrops Fetalis

  • Hydrops fetalis, or hydrops, is a condition that occurs when large amounts of fluid build up in a baby’s tissues and organs causing extreme swelling. Patients with hydrops fetalis are treated through the Thalassemia Program at  Dana-Farber/Boston Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, an integrated pediatric hematology and oncology partnership between Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Boston Children’s Hospital.

    • Hydrops fetalis can be life-threatening.
    • There are two types of hydrops fetalis, immune and non-immune.
    • Immune hydrops fetalis is no longer common in the United States.
    • Non-immune hydrops fetalis occurs in one of every 1,000 births in the United States.
    • Hydrops fetalis can be diagnosed before or after birth.
    • Treatment of hydrops fetalis depends on its cause.
    • About half of unborn babies with hydrops fetalis do not survive.

    Dana-Farber/Boston Children's

    300 Longwood Avenue
    Boston MA 02115

    617-355-8246 x2

  • What is hydrops fetalis?

    Hydrops fetalis, or hydrops, is a condition that occurs when large amounts of fluid build up in a baby’s tissues and organs causing extreme swelling.

    Types of hydrops fetalis

    Immune:

    • occurs when the mother's immune system causes the baby’s red blood cells to breakdown
    • most dangerous complication of hemolytic disease of the newborn

    Non-immune:

    • occurs when disease or other complications interfere with the baby's ability to manage fluid
    • most common type

    What causes hydrops fetalis?

    Many different diseases and other medical complications can cause hydrops fetalis, such as:

    Immune:

    Non-immune:

    Is hydrops fetalis common?

    Immune hydrops fetalis is no longer very common due to advances in the prevention of hemolytic disease of the newborn. Non-immune hydrops fetalis occurs in approximately one of every 1,000 births. About half of unborn babies with hydrops fetalis do not survive.

    What are the symptoms of hydrops fetalis?

    Symptoms of hydrops fetalis can occur during pregnancy or after the baby is born. During pregnancy, symptoms of hydrops fetalis may include:

    • large amounts of amniotic fluid
    • thickened placenta
    • enlarged liver, spleen or heart in the baby
    • fluid buildup in the baby’s abdomen

    After birth, symptoms may include:

    • pale coloring
    • severe swelling overall, especially in the baby's abdomen
    • enlarged liver and spleen
    • difficulty breathing
  • How does a doctor know that it’s hydrops fetalis?

    Hydrops fetalis can be diagnosed during pregnancy or after the baby is born through one of the following tests:

  • Treatment of hydrops fetalis depends on its cause. During pregnancy, hydrops fetalis is treatable only in certain situations. After birth, treatment may include:

    • help for difficulty breathing using extra oxygen or a mechanical breathing machine
    • removal of excessive fluid from spaces around the lungs and abdomen using a needle
    • medications to help the kidneys remove excess fluid
       
  • Thalassemia, specifically alpha thalassemia, is one cause and hemolytic disease is another. The pediatric hematologists at Dana-Farber/Boston Children's Hospital are experts in the genetic evaluation of families at risk for both immune and non-immune hydrops due to severe fetal anemia.

    For more information about current research, visit www.danafarberbostonchildrens.org.

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