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Sepsis pregnancy

If you’re pregnant or have just given birth, it’s crucial to be aware of the symptoms.

What is sepsis?

Sepsis is a complication of a severe infection. When the immune system fights the infection, sepsis sees the body go too far and start to attack organs and other tissues.

When it occurs in pregnant women or within six weeks after giving birth, it’s called maternal or postpartum sepsis (RCOG, 2012). Without quick treatment, sepsis can lead to multiple organ failure and death. It’s a leading cause of maternal death in women in the UK (NHS Choices, 2016).

What are the symptoms of sepsis?

Early warning signs to look out for are:

  • High temperature (over 38.3°C)
  • Very low temperature (less than 36°C)
  • Chills and shivering
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Fast breathing or breathlessness
  • Headache
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Extreme sleepiness

    (MBRRACE-UK, 2017)

If you develop any of these symptoms, you or your family should seek medical advice or go to a maternity unit quickly (MBRRACE-UK, 2017).

  • Fever or rigors
  • Diarrhoea or vomiting
  • Rash
  • Abdominal or pelvic pain and tenderness
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge
  • Productive cough
  • Urinary symptoms

    (RCOG, 2012)

If you recently had an infection or injury and are showing signs of sepsis, seek medical advice urgently from NHS 911. If your symptoms are severe, go straight to A&E or call 999.

What causes sepsis?

It’s impossible to know who will suffer from sepsis until it happens but risk factors for maternal and postpartum sepsis can be:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Anaemia
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge
  • History of pelvic infection
  • History of group B streptococcal infection
  • History of invasive procedures
  • Prolonged length of time between water breaking and baby being born
  • Streptococcal infection in close contacts or family members
  • Black or other minority ethnic group origin

    (RCOG, 2012)

How is sepsis diagnosed?

If there is concern that you have sepsis, you’ll most likely be given a blood test, but then tests can go further to uncover what type of sepsis you have, where it’s located and which bodily functions have been affected. These can include urine or stool samples, a high vaginal swab, wound culture, X-ray and a number of other tests (NHS Choices, 2016).

What is the treatment for sepsis?

Severe sepsis or septic shock is a medical emergency. If sepsis is detected early and hasn’t affected vital organs, it may be possible to treat the infection at home with antibiotics, leading to a full recovery.

Treatment will vary depending on the site and cause of the initial infection, the organs affected and the extent of any damage.

After hospital admission, treatment usually involves the ‘sepsis six’. They should be started by a medical team within an hour of diagnosis. The sepsis six involve:

  • Giving fluids intravenously
  • Giving oxygen if levels are low
  • Giving antibiotics
  • Blood culture – to identify the type of bacteria causing sepsis
  • Blood sample – to assess the severity of sepsis
  • Monitoring urine output – to assess severity and kidney function

    (NHS Choices, 2016)

Can maternal sepsis affect the baby?

Yes, sepsis can pass from the mother to the child before or during the birth, which is another reason to treat it so quickly and efficiently (MedlinePlus, 2018).

Is sepsis the same as septicaemia and blood poisoning?

Not quite. Neither term is entirely accurate because septicaemia (blood poisoning) refers to invasion of bacteria into the bloodstream. This occurs as part of sepsis.

Sepsis is not just limited to the blood and can affect the whole body, including the organs. Sepsis can also be caused by viral or fungal infections, although bacterial infections are by far the most common cause (NHS Choices, 2016).

This page was last reviewed in February 2018

Further information

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 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.

You might find attending one of our Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.

Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.

If sepsis has affected you or someone close to you, you can contact the UK Sepsis Trust.

MBRRACE-UK. (2017) Saving lives, improving mothers’ care – lessons learned to inform maternity care from the UK and Ireland Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths and Morbidity. Available from: [Accessed 1st February 2017].

MedlinePlus. (2018) Neonatal sepsis. Available from: [Accessed 1st February 2017].

NHS Choices. (2016) Sepsis. Available from: [Accessed 1st February 2017].

RCOG. (2012) Bacterial sepsis in pregnancy. Available from: [Accessed 1st February 2017].

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