Twenty years ago, July was designated International Group B Strep Awareness Month, yet many parents continue to be unaware of what this infection is and how it can impact their babies. This year, we encourage you to take this opportunity to get the facts about Group B Strep and understand your risk.
What is Group B Strep?
Group B Streptococcus is a naturally occurring bacteria in the digestive and reproductive tracks of men and women. Because it generally causes no symptoms, a pregnant woman can be a carrier and unknowingly pass an infection to her unborn child.
Statistically, only a small percentage of babies exposed to Group B Strep will get sick. However, those that do can become seriously ill with sepsis or meningitis, with devastating effects. For this reason, and because one in four women is a carrier of Group B Strep, doctors now routinely test women for the bacteria late in pregnancy.
The good news is that babies do not have to get sick from Group B Strep. The key is knowing when and if you are a carrier so that action can be taken.
Symptoms of infection in babies
Disease caused by Group B Strep can occur before birth, immediately after birth through the first week of life, or up to three to six months of age. An unexplained fever during pregnancy or a sudden decrease in fetal movement after the 20th week of pregnancy could indicate an infection during pregnancy. After birth, awareness of symptoms in newborns and infants is crucial, as an infection will move quickly.
Caregivers should watch for:
High-pitched or shrill crying or moaning, or a baby who is inconsolable.
A baby who seems in distress or is having difficulty breathing.
Gray or pale skin or reacting as if the skin is tender when touched.
A baby who seems listless or is experiencing uncontrolled jerking movements.
Missed feedings, poor feeding, or projectile vomiting.
Extreme irritability, extreme fatigue, or difficulty waking the baby for a feeding.
A fever or abnormally low body temperature.
What can I do?
Your doctor will culture urine samples for evidence of Group B Strep during each pregnancy—a woman who tested negative in one pregnancy could test positive in subsequent pregnancies. If urine cultures are negative, a vaginal swab taken at the 36th to 37th week of pregnancy will be tested to confirm the bacteria are not present.
Women who test positive will receive IV antibiotics at the onset of labor. It’s important that your doctor is aware if you typically have short labors so that enough time is allowed for the proper amount of antibiotics to be administered. Planning ahead is key. If your baby is born too quickly, doctors may test the baby for Group B Strep, keep your baby for observation, or administer additional antibiotics to your baby immediately after birth.
If you have had a baby who was infected with Group B Strep, or if tests show you to be heavily colonized, your doctor may begin treatment during pregnancy.
Group B Strep is a normal occurrence in women that rarely shows any symptoms, but infections in babies are preventable. For more information about how you can protect your unborn child, talk to our doctors.