Pregnancy - what is Group B strep?

Around a quarter of UK women who are childbearing age carry a bacteria that could make their baby seriously ill, yet they don’t know about it. How can you find out if your baby is at risk – and how can you keep him safe?

According to UK charity Group B Strep Support, roughly a quarter of women who are childbearing age carry a bacterial infection called Group B streptococcus (GBS). It’s perfectly normal – up to 30% of adults are carriers – there are usually no symptoms and it doesn’t require treatment.

However, GBS can pass to a baby during childbirth, potentially causing physical and mental disabilities – and, in the worst-case scenario, proving fatal. Yet most women aren’t even aware they’re carriers unless a simple test during pregnancy confirms it. The problem is that current testing procedures aren’t reliable and miss up to 50% of carriers. The best way to protect your baby is to be aware of situations that could put your baby at risk if you are a carrier. These include:

• Premature labour (before 37 weeks).

• Waters breaking 18-24 hours before your baby is delivered.

• Having a temperature of 37.8°C or higher during labour.

• Already being a known GBS carrier.

• Having your urine test positive for GBS at any time during your pregnancy.

• Having a urinary tract infection when you go into labour.

• Having previously had a baby with GBS infection.

Will my baby get ill?

Not every baby born to a GBS carrier becomes ill (current figures are around one baby in every 200). But there is a risk that your baby may contract it during your labour, when he’ll come into contact with the bacteria via the amniotic fluid and your vaginal fluids. Giving you intravenous antibiotics during your labour ensures that the GBS bacteria is sufficiently reduced to leave your baby unharmed as he passes through the birth canal. If you are a carrier, be assertive about making your carers aware of your status and asking for antibiotics when you go into labour.

If your baby is infected, he’ll be treated with intravenous antibiotics but 10-20% of babies who become infected die, although most who survive go on to develop normally. GBS can, however, cause meningitis – and this in turn can result in sight and hearing loss, mental retardation and learning disabilities.

Signs to watch out for…

Around 60% of babies infected with GBS show signs at birth, including lethargy, pneumonia, sepsis and meningitis. But around 10% of babies develop it after two days. Group B Strep Support points to these signs as possible symptoms your older baby has GBS – if you’re at all concerned take your baby to A&E immediately:

• Irritability marked by inconsolable or high-pitched crying, shrill moaning or whimpering.

• Grunting as if he’s constipated.

• Poor feeding, refusing to feed and projectile vomiting.

• Excessive drowsiness

Sleeping too much and not waking for feeds.

• High or low temperature

Hands and feet may still feel cold even with a fever.

• Unnatural skin tone

It may be red and blotchy, or a pale bluish-gray due to lack of oxygen.

• Breathing problems

Fast, slow, or difficult breathing.

• Stiff or floppy body

He may be listless and floppy or stiff with uncontrollable jerking.

• Bulging soft spot on top of her head.

• Blank stare

He may seem to be in a trance.

Related links

Is this really labour? Expert midwife Verona Hall gives you the lowdown

Natural Induction: When is it safe to naturally induce labour, and how can you go about accomplishing it

A Two Day Labour: Karin Hobbs tells the very personal story of her first childbirth.

Find out more

Group B Strep Support has information and advice, plus an optional newsletter. 

Related Advice