Have these stages personalized and emailed to you: Sign up now

Sepsis and pregnancy

Sepsis is a common and potentially life-threatening condition caused by infection. Here we discuss the signs and symptoms and what to do if you think you might have sepsis.

Sepsis is an illness that can develop in some pregnant women, as well as in women who have recently had a baby or babies. Sepsis that occurs during pregnancy is called maternal sepsis. Sometimes called blood poisoning, sepsis is the body’s inflammatory response to infection, but it can overload the body’s ability to cope.

What are the signs and symptoms of sepsis?

With sepsis, the immune system goes into overdrive, and the chemicals it releases into the blood to combat infection trigger widespread inflammation. This inflammation leads to the formation of small blood clots and leaky blood vessels that block the flow of blood to the vital organs. In the most severe cases (septic shock), blood pressure falls to dangerously low levels, multiple organs fail, and the patient can die.

The symptoms of sepsis include:

  • High temperature (over 38.3°C)
  • Fast breathing, breathlessness
  • Chills and shivering
  • Headache
  • Extreme sleepiness
  • Fast heart rate
  • Severe abdominal pain

Sepsis can develop very quickly. Pregnant women or new mums can appear relatively well and yet become seriously ill very quickly. It's really important that women and their families are aware of early warning signs and seek medical attention urgently.

Serious complications are very rare, but a recent enquiry into maternal deaths between 2009 and 2012 showed that almost a quarter of the women who died had sepsis. Quick action is therefore really important.

Treating sepsis

Sepsis can be treated in its early stages with antibiotics alone.

Diagnosing sepsis in a pregnant woman or someone who has recently given birth can be challenging. Pregnancy and delivery causes many changes in the body, including a faster heart beat, changes in blood pressure, and faster breathing. Usually, these are signs that may alert a healthcare professional that there may be something wrong, such as an infection. Also, many women get chills and sweat heavily after giving birth. They may also have pain, or feel dizzy or light headed.

When to seek medical advice

Women who are pregnant or have recently given birth need to be aware that if they are not getting better after being prescribed antibiotics, for example if they continue to have high fevers, extreme shivering or pain, they should get further advice from their doctor or midwife urgently.

Don’t be hesitant about asking to be referred to more senior doctors or midwives. If you are ill during or after your pregnancy and you, or your partner or other family members, are not happy about how you are being looked after, be persistent about asking to see a more senior doctor or midwife.

Sepsis, septicaemia and blood poisoning

Sepsis is often referred to as either blood poisoning or septicaemia, although NHS Choices suggests that both terms are not entirely accurate. Sepsis is not just limited to the blood and can affect the whole body, including the organs.

Septicaemia (another name for blood poisoning) refers to invasion of bacteria into the bloodstream and this occurs as part of sepsis. Sepsis can also be caused by viral or fungal infections, although bacterial infections are by far the most common cause.

Further information

NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700. We also offer antenatal courses which are a great way to find out more about birth, labour and life with a new baby.

NHS Choices has a useful A-Z of common health problems which lists several common infections as well as information about sepsis.