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Neonatal Sepsis

  • Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Publication Type:


Neonatal Sepsis

(Sepsis, Neonatal)


Neonatal sepsis is an infection in a newborn baby’s blood. It can appear any time from the first day after birth to at least 28 days.

Neonatal sepsis is a serious problem. Medical care is needed right away.

Spread of Infection.

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Sepsis is caused by germs that the baby comes in contact with. Bacteria is the most common cause. Some sepsis can be caused by viruses or fungus, but this is less common. The germs may pass to the baby from:

  • Amniotic fluid or placenta during pregnancy
  • Birth canal during or right after birth
  • People caring for newborn or medical devices needed for support of newborn

A baby’s immune system needs time to develop. This can make it hard for the baby to fight an infection. A baby could get very ill quickly.

Risk Factors

Sepsis is more common in male babies. It is also more likely in babies who are:

  • Born very early
  • Born with a low birth weight

Other things that may raise the risk are:

  • Water breaks more than 18 hours before the baby is born
  • The pregnant woman has Group B streptococcal bacteria in their vaginal or rectal areas
  • Antibiotic treatment for Group B streptococcal bacteria in parent was not strong enough during birth
  • The baby needs early medical care, such as a catheter


The baby may have:

  • A fever or many changes in temperature
  • Problems feeding or vomiting
  • Fussiness or a high-pitched cry
  • Lack of energy
  • Yellow, blue, or pale skin
  • Bruising or bleeding
  • Skin rashes or cool, clammy skin
  • Fast breathing, problems breathing, or times when they are not breathing
  • Diarrhea
  • A swollen belly
  • Little or no urine (pee)
  • Tremors


The doctor will ask about the baby's symptoms and any health issues. A physical exam will be done. The doctor may suspect an infection based on symptoms. The specific cause of infection may be found by testing:

  • Blood
  • Urine
  • Fluid around the brain and spinal cord
  • Fluid that may come out with cough


It is important to treat sepsis as soon as possible for the best outcomes. A severe infection can hurt organs like the brain, kidneys, or lungs. Medicine can help to treat the infection. They may include:

  • Antibiotics—for infections caused by bacteria
  • Antivirals—for infections caused by virus
  • Antifungal—for infections caused by fungi

The baby may also need support during illness. Support may include:

  • IV fluids
  • Breathing support if the baby is having a hard time getting enough oxygen


Neonatal sepsis may be prevented with good prenatal care. This could mean stopping any germs in the pregnant woman from spreading to the baby.

People caring for the newborn should wash their hands often. This can help stop germs from spreading.





  • Early-onset neonatal sepsis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/early-onset-neonatal-sepsis.
  • Late-onset neonatal sepsis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/late-onset-neonatal-sepsis.
  • Neonatal sepsis (sepsis neonatorum). The Merck Manual Professional Edition website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/pediatrics/infections_in_neonates/neonatal_sepsis.html.
  • Neonatal sepsis. EBSCO Nursing Reference Center website. Available at: https://www.ebscohost.com/nursing/products/nursing-reference-center.
  • Shane AL, Sánchez PJ, et al. Neonatal sepsis. Lancet, 2017; 390 (10104): 1770-1780.


  • Nicole S. Meregian, PA
Last Updated:

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.