Group B strep bacteria, commonly found in your intestines and lower gastrointestinal (GI) tract, can cause serious complications for newborns, older people, and those with certain chronic illnesses, like diabetes. People who develop a group B strep infection could develop sepsis.
Sepsis, which was often called blood poisoning, is the body’s life-threatening response to infection. Like strokes or heart attacks, sepsis is a medical emergency that requires rapid diagnosis and treatment.
Sepsis and septic shock can result from an infection anywhere in the body, such as pneumonia, influenza, or urinary tract infections. Worldwide, one-third of people who develop sepsis die. Many who survive are left with life-changing effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain and fatigue, organ dysfunction (organs don’t work properly), and/or amputations.
What is group B strep disease?
Most healthy adults do not get infections from group B strep (GBS) for the most part. If they do, the most common infections are:
- Bloodstream infections
- Skin and soft-tissue infections
- Bone and joint infections
Newborns are most at risk for developing severe complications and sepsis from group b strep. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), GBS is the leading cause of meningitis and sepsis in a newborn’s first week of life.
Babies infected within the first week of life have early-onset GBS disease. If they become sick from 7 days old to 3 months or more, it is called late-onset GBS disease.
Early-onset GBS disease is caused when a baby picks up the bacteria while passing through the birth canal. Late-onset is caused by people carrying the bacteria (even if they are not sick) and passing it to the baby.
Who is at risk?
Newborns and people with chronic illnesses are at risk of developing an infection from GBS, as are the elderly.
A newborn is at risk of developing a GBS infection if:
- The baby is premature, more than three weeks before the due date;
- The membranes (water) broke more than 18 hours before the birth;
- The staff use a monitor that attaches to the baby’s scalp while the baby is still in the uterus (intrauterine fetal monitoring, or scalp lead);
- There is GBS in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, reproductive tract, or urinary tract during pregnancy;
- There is a fever of 100.4° Fahrenheit or 38° Celsius or higher while in labor; or
- A previous pregnancy resulted in a baby with a GBS infection.
Older children and adults
Children and adults who have a chronic illness that can lower their immune system or who take medication that lowers their ability to fight infections are at risk. In addition, people who have invasive procedures, such as inserting a urinary catheter, are also at risk. As people get older, they do become more susceptible to GBS.
Group B strep symptoms
Babies who have developed GBS may show some of these symptoms:
- Unstable body temperature (high or low),
- Pale skin, or bluish tint,
- Difficulty breathing, such as the nose flaring, breathing quickly, and/or grunting,
- Poor feeding,
- Abnormal pulse (heart rate), and
- Listlessness or irritability.
Unless they have an infection, adults don’t usually show any symptoms if they are just carrying the bacteria.
Without an actual GBS diagnosis, you probably don’t know if you have the infection. The CDC recommends that people between 35 to 37 weeks pregnant ask their doctor or midwife for GBS testing.
Preventing GBS disease
For older children and adults, preventing an infection from GBS is the same as with other types of infections: washing your hands.
Preventing GBS among infants depends on treatment during pregnancy. If your test for GBS is positive, your doctor or midwife will consider this when making plans for your baby’s delivery. People who are pregnant who have GBS are generally given antibiotics by intravenous (IV) while they are in labor and delivering. If you have GBS, there is no benefit from taking antibiotics against GBS before going into labor. The bacteria grow back very quickly and your baby would not be protected.
If something happens and you end up delivering in a facility where you didn’t expect to, it’s important that you let the staff know that you tested positive for GBS.
Treatment for GBS disease
Treatment for an infection caused by GBS is with antibiotics.
If you suspect sepsis, call 9-1-1 or go to a hospital and tell your medical professional, “I AM CONCERNED ABOUT SEPSIS.”
The information here is also available as a Sepsis Information Guide, which is a downloadable format for easier printing.
Would you like to share your story about sepsis or read about others who have had sepsis? Please visit Faces of Sepsis, where you will find hundreds of stories from survivors and tributes to those who died from sepsis.
Learn more about this infection at Group B Strep International.
Updated January 3, 2023.