Sepsis in Newborns

Overview

What is sepsis in newborns?

Sepsis is a serious medical condition caused by the body's response to an infection. A newborn who has an infection and develops sepsis can have inflammation (swelling) throughout the body, leading to organ failure.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes sepsis in newborns?

Bacterial infections are the most common cause of sepsis. However, sepsis can also be caused by fungi, parasites or viruses. The infection can be located in any of a number of places throughout the body.

How do newborns get sepsis?

Newborns can get sepsis in several different ways:

  • If the mother has an infection of the amniotic fluid (a condition known as chorioamnionitis)
  • Premature birth (premature babies are at a higher risk for sepsis)
  • Low birth weight of the infant (risk factor for sepsis)
  • If the mother’s water breaks early (more than 18 hours before the baby is born)
  • If the baby is being treated for another condition while still in the hospital
  • If the mother’s birth canal is colonized with bacteria

What are some symptoms of infections in newborns?

Symptoms of infections in newborns include:

  • Not feeding well
  • Being very sleepy
  • Being very irritable
  • Rapid breathing or breathing pauses (apnea)
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Fever (temperature over 100.4 degrees F or over 38.1 degrees C)
  • Inability to stay warm -- having a low body temperature despite being clothed and wrapped in blankets
  • Pale appearance

Diagnosis and Tests

How is sepsis in newborns diagnosed?

Tests for sepsis in newborns can include:

  • Blood tests (blood cell counts, blood cultures)
  • Urine tests (urinalysis and culture)
  • Skin swabs
  • Spinal tap (also known as lumbar puncture) to test for meningitis. A spinal tap is a procedure in which a very small needle is inserted into the space around your child’s spine to withdraw spinal fluid to test for infections.

Management and Treatment

How is sepsis in newborns treated?

Babies who have sepsis are admitted to an intensive care unit. Treatments may include the following:

  • Intravenous (IV, directly into a vein) fluids
  • IV antibiotics
  • Medications for fever (rarely used in newborns)
  • Extra oxygen and other forms of respiratory support, if needed

Occasionally, babies may need blood transfusions.

Prevention

Can sepsis be prevented in newborns?

To prevent infection in the baby, expectant women can be treated with IV antibiotics for several hours before delivery, if indicated by prenatal screens or clinical signs such as maternal fever or uterine tenderness. Your obstetrician will decide if you should be given antibiotics before delivery.

Living With

How should I follow up with my doctor after my newborn has been discharged from the hospital?

After discharge, follow up with your pediatrician in 2 to 3 days to check for continued signs of recovery.

When should I call my healthcare provider about my newborn?

Call your healthcare provider if your newborn:

  • Is not feeding well.
  • Becomes more irritable or lethargic (sleepy).
  • Is breathing too fast or with difficulty.
  • Is breathing too slow, with pauses.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/02/2018.

References

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sepsis. Accessed 10/3/2018.
  • MedlinePlus. Sepsis. Accessed 10/3/2018.
  • Sepsis Alliance. Definition of Sepsis. Accessed 10/3/2018.
  • National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Sepsis. Accessed 10/3/2018.
  • Sepsis Alliance. Sepsis and Children. Accessed 10/3/2018.

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