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Everything You Need to Know About Neonatal Sepsis

Medically reviewed by Ruben Macapinlac, MD, DPPS · Pediatrics · Philippine Pediatric Society

Written by Jan Alwyn Batara · Updated Jun 28, 2021

Everything You Need to Know About Neonatal Sepsis

What is Neonatal Sepsis?

Neonatal sepsis is a serious illness that affects infants younger than 90 days old. Please note that its signs and symptoms are non-specific.

For premature babies, the risk of developing neonatal sepsis is greater because of their undeveloped immune system.

Despite being a serious condition, neonatal sepsis can be treated, especially if detected early on.

neonatal sepsis

It primarily affects a newborn’s blood, but it can also affect the rest of the body. A number of things can cause neonatal sepsis, but bacterial infection is the most common source of infection.

Parents should be especially wary of this illness, and it is important for them to know what signs to watch out for, and what they can do to prevent this from happening to their newborn.

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Causes & Risk Factors

Neonatal sepsis can be caused by different types of bacteria, and it varies depending on where the baby got the infection.

Here are some of the possible causes:

Microorganisms that cause neonatal sepsis

  • Group B streptococcus
  • Escherichia coli or E. coli
  • Staphylococcus, which is also responsible for staph infection
  • Haemophilus influenza
  • Listeria monocytogenes

On top of bacterial causes, please remember that some viruses and fungi could also cause neonatal sepsis.

In early onset sepsis, bacteria can enter the uterus through the vagina and infect a newborn in utero. You can also define this as an infection occuring during or after birth in less than 7 days.

Infection is also possible as the baby passes through the vaginal canal during birth.

Late-onset sepsis, on the other hand, occurs when the baby is infected after birth. Infection could arise through contact with adults with unsanitized hands.You can also define this as an infection acquired in the hospital or community after the baby’s 7th day of life.

neonatal sepsis

What Are the Risk Factors for Neonatal Sepsis?

The following risk factors can greatly increase a newborn’s risk for sepsis, and it would be best for parents and caregivers to try and avoid these factors as much as possible.

  • Premature birth and Low Birth Weight
  • The amniotic sac leaks or ruptures more than 18 hours before birth
  • Current/previous maternal infection that can cause an infection of the amniotic fluid, such as strep infection.
  • The baby undergoes invasive procedures
  • Fetal distress which leads to resuscitation at birth.
  • Prolonged stay in the hospital (if the baby is sick or premature)
  • Cross-infection by parents or hospital staff
  • Environment
  • Low socioeconomic factors

Symptoms & Diagnosis

The symptoms of sepsis can be hard to identify, especially during the early stages. Additionally, the symptoms of sepsis can vary depending on what is causing the infection, and which part of the newborn’s body is infected.

However, here is a quick list of some common symptoms to watch out for:

  • Temperature instability
  • Unstable vital signs during and after birth, such as rapid heart rate, fast breathing, etc.
  • The baby suffers from drowsiness or has trouble staying awake
  • Poor appetite
  • Jaundice and enlarged abdomen, liver,or spleen,
  • Bleeding problems, such as bruising or pallor (paleness)
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Seizures
  • Abnormal blood glucose levels

If your baby shows any of these symptoms of sepsis, it would be best to take them to the doctor immediately so that they can get tested.

How is Neonatal Sepsis Diagnosed?

Once in the hospital, doctors usually conduct a series of tests to check if it is indeed sepsis.

Here are some possible methods of diagnosis:

Blood culture

In order to find out if there is bacteria in the blood and to identify what type of bacteria it is, a blood culture is conducted.

In this process, a sample of blood will be taken from your baby, and it will be used in a bacterial culture to check for the presence of bacteria.

This process can take a few days, so in the meantime doctors will start on the main treatment for sepsis. Once the type of bacteria is identified, doctors can then proceed to treatment that will address that specific type of bacteria if necessary.

Blood test

A blood test helps check for any signs of sepsis in the kidneys, liver, and blood cells. This helps doctors know where the sepsis is, and if any other organs are infected.

Urine culture

Just like a blood culture, a urine culture takes a urine sample and then it is used in a bacterial culture. This helps check for any bacteria that might be present in the urinary tract which can potentially be the cause of neonatal sepsis.

Lumbar puncture

In a lumbar puncture, a sample of cerebrospinal fluid is taken from the spine using a needle. This tests for meningitis which is a possible complication of sepsis.

X-ray test

An x-ray can also be used to check the baby’s lungs, heart, and abdominal organs, to see if there are any signs of an infection.

Treatment & Prevention

Treatment for neonatal sepsis can vary depending on how old the baby is, their current state of health, and how severe their symptoms are.

If your doctor suspects that your child has sepsis, they will admit the baby and immediately start with broad-spectrum antibiotics.  This will help fight off any bacteria while the doctor waits for test results.

Once they get the results, the treatment can change to target specifically the bacteria that is causing the problem.

Newborns and premature babies are especially vulnerable to sepsis. When a doctor suspects that a newborn has sepsis, the newborn is usually taken to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Your baby will be watched very closely in the NICU, and will be provided antibiotics, medicine, fluids, food, and oxygen support if it is needed. Treatment in the NICU is especially important since neonatal sepsis is life-threatening especially for newborns.

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How Can Parents Prevent Neonatal Sepsis?

For the most part, sepsis can’t be prevented. This is especially true if the baby gets infected while in the womb, or during childbirth.

In these situations, the best thing to do would be to take your newborn to the doctor immediately.

Even if sepsis can’t be prevented, there are some things that parents can do to help lower the risk of sepsis in their newborn.

How to lower the risk of sepsis

  • Pregnant women should go to their regular checkups as this can help identify if they have any infections that can put the baby at risk of neonatal sepsis.
  • It would also be a good idea for pregnant women to give birth in a clean, sterile location.
  • Pregnant women should ideally give birth within 12-24 hours after their water breaks. This helps prevent any possible infection.
  • Before touching your newborn, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly to kill any germs and viruses that might be present.
  • Keep your baby’s sleeping area clean, and be sure to wash their linens and clothing thoroughly.
  • Be sure to warn visitors not to touch your newborn, or at the very least be sure to wash their hands before doing so.
  • Make sure to take your newborn to the doctor for regular checkups.
  • If you see any peculiar symptoms, be sure to get in touch with your child’s doctor immediately.

By following these tips, parents can help lower the risk of sepsis in their newborn.

Key Takeaways

When it comes to neonatal sepsis, parents should not worry too much. The important thing would be to get regular checkups, practice good hygiene, and be sure to take note of any peculiar symptoms in your newborn.

Learn more about Parenting and Babies here


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Ruben Macapinlac, MD, DPPS

Pediatrics · Philippine Pediatric Society

Written by Jan Alwyn Batara · Updated Jun 28, 2021

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