A puerperal infection, or puerperal sepsis, is a condition that occurs when a new mom experiences an infection related to giving birth.
Puerperal infections are the sixth-leading cause of death among new mothers, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). While fatalities are rare in the United States, puerperal infections affect about 6 percent of new mothers (Medscape).
While a hospital is a place of healing, it is also a location where many different types of bacteria grow. After giving birth, women are more vulnerable to infections of the genital tract. Bacteria are opportunistic and thrive in warm, moist environments, like the genital and urinary tracts.
Bacteria known to cause a puerperal infection include:
- Clostridium tetani
- Clostridium welchii
- Escherichia coli (E.coli)
These bacteria can enter the body via pelvic examinations during labor. This can be because of trauma during labor or because of prolonged delivery that gives more time for bacteria to enter the vaginal tract. Use of non-sterile instruments or unclean hands during dilation checks can also introduce bacteria into the body.
Medical professionals should closely monitor women after birth. Symptoms associated with puerperal infections include:
- drainage from the uterus that contains pus or is foul-smelling
- fever greater than 100.4° Fahrenheit
- lower stomach pain
- pain or tenderness in the uterus
- uterus does not return to its normal size
Symptoms of puerperal infection typically begin anywhere between 24 hours to 10 days after infection occurs.
If a puerperal infection is suspected, a physician might check the vagina and uterus for signs of swelling and tenderness. He or she may test for the presence of bacteria by taking a urine or blood sample or swabbing any wounds. Until the specific bacteria type is determined, a physician will likely prescribe a broad-spectrum antibiotic to keep the infection from spreading.
Because a blood culture can take time, a physician may prescribe a broad-spectrum antibiotic. These can kill a range of bacterial types and prevent an infection from spreading.
If a surgical site infection is the cause, the area must be kept clean and dry to prevent further bacteria from invading.
Anti-fever medications and cold compresses may also help keep a patient’s fever as minimal as possible.