Group B Streptococcus
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.
Sometimes incorrectly called blood poisoning, sepsis is the body’s often deadly response to infection. Sepsis kills and disables millions and requires early suspicion and treatment for survival.
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 do 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?
For the most part, most healthy adults do not get infections from group B strep (GBS). If they do, the most common infections are:
- Bloodstream infections
- Skin and soft-tissue infections
- Bone and joint infections
It is newborns who 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.
If babies are infected within the first week of life, it is called 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 from his or her mother while passing through the birth canal. Late-onset is caused by people who are carrying the bacteria (even if they are not sick) and they pass 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 baby’s mother’s 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);
- The baby’s mother has GBS in her gastrointestinal (GI) tract, reproductive tract, or urinary tract;
- The baby’s mother has a fever of 100.4° Fahrenheit or 38° Celsius or higher while in labor; or
- The baby’s mother has given birth to a baby before 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 the immune system, are at risk. In addition, people who have invasive procedures, such as the insertion of 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.
Adults don’t usually show any symptoms if they are just carrying the bacteria. If it develops into an infection, they will show symptoms that would be associated with where the infection is, such as a UTI or pneumonia.
Unless you have been diagnosed with GBS, you probably don’t know if you have it. The CDC recommends that women who are 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 treating their mothers. If your test for GBS is positive, your doctor or midwife will take this into consideration when making plans for your baby’s delivery. Pregnant women with 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 as 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. Sepsis caused by GBS should be treated urgently with both antibiotics and IV fluids.
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 March 3, 2021.