What is neonatal sepsis?

Neonatal sepsis is a common and deadly disease that usually occurs in the first four weeks of life. Here’s what you need to know. By registered midwife Pippa Hime


The first 28 days of a newborn baby’s life is referred to as the neonatal period. Some babies can develop a blood infection, known as neonatal sepsis during this time.

Cape Town-based paediatrician Dr Michelle Roos provides insight into this condition.

“Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that can develop when the immune system responds to an infection,” explains Dr Roos.

When the body tries to fight an infection, your immune system gets activated and releases certain chemicals in response to the germs (bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites). If this response becomes overactive, it can injure the body’s own organ systems and this leads to sepsis. “Babies are much more susceptible to developing sepsis because they are at a higher risk of contracting an infection,” says Dr Roos.

ALSO SEE: 5 important hygiene rules to follow with a newborn in the house

Are all babies at risk of neonatal sepsis?

Babies can become infected either in utero, during birth, or in hospital after birth.

Dr Roos says the following factors can increase the risk of neonatal sepsis:

  • Preterm babies
  • If your water has been broken for more than 18 hours
  • If your amniotic water is infected
  • If you have Group B streptococci in your birth canal.

ALSO SEE: Group B Streptococcus | Why you should get tested for this during pregnancy

Signs to look out for

“The signs of sepsis in babies can be very subtle. Your doctor and midwife will firstly look if your baby has risk factors for sepsis,” says Dr Roos. Babies who are at risk are closely observed for developing symptoms. It is important to have your baby regularly checked during the neonatal period at a clinic so that any early signs can be detected.

Look out for these signs of neonatal sepsis:

  • A high or low temperature
  • Trouble breathing, or
  • Breathing faster than normal
  • Feeding less than usual
  • Fingertips and toes that are slightly blue
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • A severe rash with pustules.

If you detect any of the above signs, it is best to contact your doctor or midwife immediately so your baby can be carefully examined.

How is neonatal sepsis diagnosed?

If your paediatrician suspects your baby may have sepsis, they will do a blood and urine culture to detect which organism is causing the infection. They will also do a few other tests to check the effect of the infection on the body’s organs. Your doctor may also want to conduct other investigations if they feel they need more information from a lumbar puncture or x-rays.

How is it treated?

A newborn with sepsis may be very ill and need to stay in hospital in the neonatal ICU to receive intravenous antibiotics, fluids, and if necessary, oxygen.

More about the expert:

Dr Michelle Roos is a Paediatrician located at Mediclinic Constantiaberg in Cape Town. Email her drmichelleroos@live.co.za or find her on Facebook @drmroos.

scroll to top
Send this to a friend