Children - Sepsis

Sepsis is a severe response the body has to an infection. It is most often caused by bacteria. It is also known as septicemia, or systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS). In newborns, it is also called sepsis neonatorum or neonatal septicemia. Sepsis is a medical emergency. It needs to be treated right away and can only be treated in the hospital.

What is sepsis?

Sepsis is when the body reacts to an infection with a severe inflammatory response. It can be caused by bacteria, fungus, or a virus. This can cause many kinds of problems around the body. It can lead severe low blood pressure (shock) and organ failure. Sepsis can be rapidly fatal, even if treated the mortality rate is high.

What causes sepsis?

A baby can be infected with bacteria, fungus, or a virus before birth. Or he or she may be infected during delivery, or after birth from contact with others. A baby in the newborn intensive care unit (NICU) is more at risk for picking up an infection. Sepsis in a newborn is more likely when the mother has had certain complications such as:

  • Fever

  • Bleeding problems

  • A difficult delivery

  • Infection in the vagina,  uterus or placenta (Groups B strep)

  • Premature rupture of the membranes (amniotic sac), or membrane rupture for an extended length of time

Symptoms of sepsis

Newborn babies often don’t show symptoms in the same way as older babies and children. And each child may have different symptoms. The symptoms can include:

  • Stopping breathing or difficulty breathing

  • Slow heart rate

  • Body temperature that’s low or not stable

  • Weak sucking

  • Pale or blotchy skin

  • Yellow coloring of the skin and eyes (jaundice)

Diagnosing sepsis

If the health care provider thinks your child may have sepsis, your child will be given tests. These may include:

  • Blood and urine tests. These are done to look for bacteria, viruses, or fungus.

  • Spinal tap (lumbar puncture). This uses a special needle is placed in the lower back. A small amount of cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) is taken. It’s then tested to look for signs of infection.

  • X-rays or other imaging tests. These may be done to look at your child’s organs to see where the infection is.


If your child has sepsis, he or she will be given antibiotics through a thin, flexible tube put into a vein in his or her arm (IV). Your child will also be given fluids through the IV. Nutrition or other medicines may also be given through the IV. Your child’s health care provider will talk with you about other treatments that your child may need. These may include using an oxygen mask or a ventilator to help with breathing. Treatment may last at least 7 to 10 days. A baby with sepsis will stay in the NICU for extra care.

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