The most common neonatal infections are spread from the mother to her baby in utero, or as the baby is born. Some neonatal infections, such as meningitis and sepsis, develop after birth, either from breastfeeding or from exposure to a virus or bacteria in the hospital setting. A number of bacteria, such as Listeria monocytogenes and group B streptococcus, lead to neonatal infections. Certain viruses, such as herpes and hepatitis, are also common causes of infections in newborns.
Meningitis is a type of neonatal infection that is usually caused by several types of bacteria. Babies born with a weakened immune system are most likely to pick up meningitis, either during birth or from exposure afterward. It can be hard to diagnose meningitis initially, as the symptoms are non-specific and include fussiness, refusing to eat, and sleepiness. If not treated, meningitis will cause the soft spots on a baby's head to swell.
The infection can be diagnosed through a spinal tap, during which a doctor will insert a needle into the baby's spine to remove fluid. If bacteria or a fungus causes the meningitis, it can be treated with antibiotics. A viral infection will be treated with an antiviral medicine. Usually, the infant will have to spend time in the intensive care unit while he recovers.
Group B streptococcus is one bacteria to blame for a neonatal meningitis infection. It can also lead to a few other neonatal infections, such as pneumonia and sepsis. A baby with pneumonia may have trouble breathing as well as a fever. Antibiotics will typically clear up any infection caused by group B streptococcus.
Sepsis is an infection caused not only by bacteria but by viruses, fungi, and parasites as well. The symptoms of sepsis resemble those for meningitis, making the disease difficult to diagnose. A doctor may perform a spinal tap or take a blood sample to determine if an infant has sepsis. Treatment includes observation in the hospital along with a course of antibiotics or anti-viral medications.
Common neonatal infections also include herpes simplex 2, which a mother can pass to her infant during delivery. An infant with herpes will typically show symptoms around the first or second week of life. Herpes can be either localized on an infant's skin or mucous membranes or throughout her entire body. If left untreated, a localized herpes infection can spread throughout the body.
Neonatal herpes can be treated with acyclovir, an antiviral medication available as a pill or topical ointment. Some infants may need additional support, such as intravenous fluids and a respirator. The transmission of neonatal herpes from mother to child may be prevented by performing a cesarean section during delivery.