Sepsis is an often-dangerous immune response that can lead to severe outcomes or death. Paired with pregnancy, it can endanger mom and baby.
Sometimes called blood poisoning, sepsis is not a disease but an attack by the human immune system upon itself. The condition can be triggered by any type of infection and is sometimes difficult to diagnose. The window of opportunity to treat sepsis is brief, and when diagnosis is missed, the escalated immune attack on the existing infection damages body tissues. If the condition progresses, septic shock can occur, dramatically dropping blood pressure and causing unrecoverable damage to multiple organs.
According to the Sepsis Alliance, infection or sepsis is the second leading cause of maternal death in the US, following hemorrhage. On a global level, 15 percent of maternal deaths are caused by sepsis. In the US, for women who contract maternal sepsis, 10 to 15 percent will die as a result.
Maternal sepsis can occur at any time throughout a pregnancy. Most sepsis cases are associated with childbirth and often occur within a week following delivery. Some events that can boost risk of maternal sepsis include:
- Delivery of a preterm baby or rupture of membranes hours before birth
- Obstructed, prolonged, or difficult delivery
- Invasive tests
- Retained placenta or postpartum bleeding
- Existing conditions like lupus, diabetes, and heart disease
Recently, a study published in JAMA Network Open looked at data from 14, 565 singleton pregnancies that occurred between the years 2012 and 2018. The study found that women who suffered and survived maternal sepsis prior to delivery in this group had higher incidence of placental dysfunction. As a result, study authors suggest increased monitoring for women with placental dysfunction throughout pregnancy.
Surviving maternal sepsis starts with understanding the symptoms. Physicians may mistakenly overlook symptoms of sepsis after childbirth like frequent urination, quickened respiration, light-headedness, or a drop in blood pressure. Sweats and chills are not uncommon after childbirth as well.
After giving birth, women may find their caregivers are more concerned with wellbeing of baby than mom. It does not take long for sepsis to gain a foothold in the body. Your odds of survival without serious damage increase the faster the condition can be addressed. If you are pregnant and experience uncomfortable symptoms that just feel wrong at any time during pregnancy, see your doctor or call 911 and ask, “could this be sepsis?” No harm done if it is not sepsis, and the question might save your life and that of your unborn child.
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