Premature babies are born with an immature immune system, which leaves them susceptible to infections, both internal and external. They may get infections from their mother or through external sources. Since their immune function is lower than term babies, it increases their chances of getting an infection.
Types of Infections That Are Common in Preemies
Premature babies are prone to several infections that may come directly from the mother or through external sources. Some of the common types of infections in preemies are blood infection or sepsis, lung infection in a premature baby that usually manifests as pneumonia, infection of the fluid around the brain or meningitis, and urinary tract infection or UTI.
Staph infection in premature babies can also be caused when the bacteria on the skin enters into the body and forms abscesses.
Why Are Premature Babies so Vulnerable?
Preemies receive a lower antibody count than term babies which contributes to their immature immune system. Since antibodies are the body’s primary defence against infections, the lack of them in preemies puts them at high risk of infection.
Also, premature babies often need intravenous lines, intubation tubes, catheters, etc., to assist with their development. These external pieces of equipment may introduce bacteria, fungi, and viruses into the baby’s system, causing infection.
Possible Signs of Infection in Preterm Baby
A preterm baby with infection may exhibit the followings signs:
- Listlessness or lack of activity
- Reduced or poor feedings
- Body temperature fluctuations (below 36 °C or above 37.8°C)
- Slow heart rate
- Yellow skin (jaundice), pale skin, spots, rashes
- Diarrhoea or vomiting
- Poor muscle tone
- Apnoea, rapid breathing
- Bad odour from the infected area
- Low blood pressure
- Possible seizures in case of meningitis
How Is Infection in Premature Baby Diagnosed?
Fluid samples like blood, spinal fluid, or urine will be obtained to culture it in a laboratory to check for evidence of bacteria in the fluids. White blood cell count in your baby’s blood will also be measured to check if there is an unnatural change in the count. Significant increases or decreases and rise in the number of young white blood cells can indicate an infection.
How to Treat Infection in Preemies?
Your baby will be treated based on the type of infection he has contracted. Bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics. Your baby may be given more than one antibiotic as no single antibiotic can control all infections. Fungal infections may be treated with anti-fungal medications and viral infections may involve treatment with different drugs based on the type of virus, along with supportive nutrition or isolation.
Can There Be Permanent Problems From Infection?
Most bacterial infections can be effectively treated with antibiotics and pose no long-term harm to the baby. However, if your baby suffers from meningitis which is severe, he may have some permanent brain damage. Meningitis needs to be treated early to avoid serious complications. Preemies with low blood pressure issues for an extended period of time may also face some heart problems and brain damage due to lack of blood circulation to the organs.
Preemies are very delicate and a lot of care and caution is advised while handling them. Doctors will generally urge you to maintain hygiene and wash your hands before and after touching them to protect them from external infections. If you or any other members in the family have an infection, do not touch the baby until you’re clear of it.