A pregnant person driving a car
By Brenna McGuire, MD

Maternal Sepsis: 5 Ways to Reduce Your Risk

Maternal sepsis is the second leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths. Learn 5 ways to reduce your risk

Especially during pregnancy, knowledge is power. Sometimes that means learning about fun things, like how big your baby will be at each stage of pregnancy. But sometimes, it means learning about scary things, like getting very sick while you are pregnant.

One scary illness you may hear about is maternal sepsis. Sepsis is a rare and extreme inflammatory reaction to a severe infection. If sepsis develops during pregnancy or after birth, it’s called maternal sepsis and it can become a life-threatening condition.

An existing infection—like a respiratory illness or urinary tract infection—can trigger a chain reaction in your body and lead to something more serious like strep and sepsis.

Your odds of maternal sepsis increase if you have

  • Prolonged labor
  • A cesarean delivery (C-section)
  • Mastitis—infected milk ducts in the breast
  • Placenta fragments that stayed in your body after delivery
  • Poor hand hygiene
  • Exposure to someone with a respiratory illness

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), maternal sepsis is the second leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths. However, it is rare, occurring in just 0.04% of deliveries. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that maternal sepsis can be diagnosed up to 42 days after giving birth.

My point is not to scare you, but to empower you. It’s important to know the symptoms of sepsis and how to reduce your risk. The faster you or your prenatal care provider spot the signs of sepsis, the faster we can get you help—and potentially save your life.

Symptoms of Maternal Sepsis

Recognizing maternal sepsis can be difficult. Many sepsis symptoms are the same as regular pregnancy changes, particularly for women in labor.

Early diagnosis for sepsis is critical. Time matters. If you experience any of these symptoms during your pregnancy—or after discharge from the hospital—call your doctor or midwife immediately:

  • Fever and chills
  • Extremely low body temperature
  • Foul-smelling vaginal discharge or bleeding
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dizziness
  • Decreased urine output
  • Fatigue
  • Blotchy or discolored skin

When you’re in the hospital to deliver your baby, we’ll check your vitals, order blood work, and monitor your health. UNM Hospital providers are experts at recognizing the warning signs and symptoms of maternal sepsis. However, it’s important that you also know the warning signs so you can talk with your doctor or midwife.

How Is Sepsis Treated?

Women with maternal sepsis need to stay in the hospital. You will get IV antibiotics to fight the infection. Your care team will check your blood pressure and organs to try to prevent long-term injury. Treatment may include giving options such as giving you fluids, performing a blood transfusion, or giving you medication to control your blood pressure.

Reducing Your Risk

While there is no way to prevent every illness that could turn into sepsis, you can take steps to reduce your risk. Start with these steps and ask your doctor or midwife if there is anything special you should do based on your personal health needs:

  1. Schedule prenatal care. Our caring staff uses simple exams and tests to monitor your pregnancy. When you attend these regular appointments, we can also quickly assess any health concerns you have.
  2. Call us with any concerns. You know your body. If you feel “off,” we want to see you as soon as possible.
  3. Manage conditions like diabetes. Inform your care team if you notice any health changes.
  4. Stay up to date on your vaccinations. Preventing and treating infections can reduce your risk of sepsis. Your provider will review your current list and make recommendations on boosters.
  5. Attend postpartum visits. Having a baby changes your body. Our compassionate team will answer questions, provide resources, and assess your overall health.

Remember that sepsis is a rare condition, but it’s important you know about it so you can advocate for yourself and your baby.

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Categories: Women's Health