What is Group B Streptococcus, What are the Symptoms, and How is it Treated?

Group B Streptococcus (GBS) is a type of bacteria that can be found in the vagina and/or rectum of about one in four adult women. When a pregnant woman has been colonised by GBS, it is possible for them to pass the bacterial infection to their baby during delivery. Though the vast majority of newborns born to a woman with GBS do not become ill, GBS in newborns can lead to meningitis, pneumonia, and sepsis. GBS is, therefore, a serious concern, despite its rarity. Most women who carry GBS  are completely asymptomatic. The bacteria can come and go in your system so routine screening is not carried out in Ireland. A woman with a negative screen at 38 weeks could be carrying it the following week. It may be picked up on a vaginal/rectal swab or urine sample if you have had any unusual discharge or urinary symptoms during the pregnancy. Most maternity units offer rapid screening if your labour is being induced or your waters have broken.

Testing positive for GBS means that you are a carrier. However, this does not mean for certain that your newborn will become ill. Around one in 200 babies born to a mother with GBS will develop symptoms. Treating the pregnant woman with antibiotics through an IV during labour reduces the risk of their newborn developing an early GBS infection by 80%. The reason why antibiotics are administered during and not before labour is that the bacteria can quickly reappear after the antibiotics.

There are two types of GBS infections in newborns: early and late infection. Symptoms for early-onset of GBS tend to appear in the first 12 hours after delivery. They include your baby feeling limp when held, being sleepy/unresponsive, not feeding, breathing difficulty, excessive crying, high or low temperature. If you notice any of these symptoms, you should seek medical assistance immediately. Without early treatment, the baby could develop sepsis, pneumonia, or meningitis. Newborns with early infection are treated with intravenous antibiotics. Late-onset GBS arises in newborns any time between the first week and three months of life. The symptoms are the same. It simply means it is unlikely that your baby caught the infection during birth. Again, this is also typically treated with antibiotics.

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