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What is Neonatal Sepsis?

By J.M. Willhite
Updated May 17, 2024
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Neonatal sepsis, also known as sepsis neonatorum, is an infection of the blood that affects infants three months of age and younger. Symptoms associated with this condition may manifest at any point during the first three months of life. Treatment for this condition usually involves the administration of an antibiotic and may require hospitalization. Neonatal sepsis is considered a progressive disease that may present mild symptoms that worsen with time, increasing an infant’s risk for complications that may include impaired organ function, disability, and death.

Sepsis neonatorum is commonly associated with exposure to various bacteria that include Listeria, Escherichia (E. coli), and group B streptococcus. Bacterial exposure and infection may be passed to the infant while in utero or during the birthing process. Various situations may increase an infant’s risk for developing neonatal sepsis.

Infants who were exposed to group B strep while in utero may be at an increased risk for becoming symptomatic within the first few weeks of life. Placental issues, such as an infection or rupturing of placental tissue, may increase an infant’s risk for developing neonatal sepsis. Preterm deliveries, unsanitary delivery conditions, and extended hospitalizations following delivery also place an infant at a greater risk for developing this type of blood infection.

Signs such as fluctuations in body temperature, reduced heart rate, and respiratory difficulty may be indicative of sepsis neonatorum. Infants with neonatal sepsis may be lethargic, experience seizures, or exhibit distention in their abdominal region. Additional signs of neonatal sepsis may include vomiting, diarrhea, and a low glucose level.

Laboratory tests may be utilized to determine the presence of bacteria and aid with confirming a diagnosis of neonatal sepsis. Blood tests, including a blood culture and complete blood count (CBC), may be conducted to evaluate protein levels, blood cell counts, and C-reactive protein (CRP) level. An increased CRP level is utilized as a marker to indicate the presence of inflammation in the body. In some cases, a spinal tap may be performed to evaluate whether cerebrospinal fluid is free of bacteria. A urinalysis may also be performed to look for markers indicative of disease or infection.

Infants with suspected sepsis neonatorum may be given antibiotic medications as a precautionary measure while test results are pending. Upon confirmation of a diagnosis, an infant may be placed on an antibiotic regimen and monitored with regular office visits or on an outpatient basis. An infant who presents severe symptoms may be hospitalized and placed on intravenous fluids, antibiotics, and other medications, including corticosteroids and insulin, to stabilize his or her condition.

Babies with sepsis neonatorum who receive a timely diagnosis and prompt, appropriate treatment usually make a full recovery without any permanent damage or residual health issues. If not treated promptly, symptoms may worsen, leading to the spread of infection which may ultimately impair organ function and cause further complications. Additional complications associated with this condition may include disability and death. As one of the leading causes of infant mortality, neonatal sepsis may be prevented through proactive measures taken during pregnancy, including the use of antibiotics to treat existing infection, administering preventive antibiotics, and providing a sanitary environment for delivery.

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