Delivering a baby can leave you vulnerable to puerperal, or postpartum, infections. Here's what to watch out for.
It’s normal to not feel your physical best in the days after giving birth. Your body is undergoing major changes as it transitions to no longer being pregnant, and whether you delivered vaginally or via C-section, you likely have sore wounds that are healing. To top it all off, you’re (over-the-moon happy but) exhausted.
If you start to feel crummy or uncomfortable, however, or have pain that gets worse instead of better, you could be dealing with a postpartum or puerperal infection.
These bacterial infections, which can develop in the days after giving birth, are rare but potentially harmful. So it’s worth knowing what postpartum warning signs to watch for and how to seek help.
What are the different types of postpartum infections?
Postpartum infections can stem from open sores in your uterus (at the site of the placenta), lacerations in your cervix, vagina or perineum (especially if you had an episiotomy), or an incision if you've had a C-section.
Some of the most common place’s infections can form are the uterine lining, the uterine muscle, or spots around the uterus. But not all postpartum infections are in the pelvic area — they can also occur in your bladder or kidneys if you were catheterized.
What causes postpartum infections?
It’s estimated that between 5 and 7 percent of women develop an infection postpartum, with higher rates among those who delivered via cesarean section.
Postpartum infections aren’t typical, but they can develop when harmful bacteria enter the reproductive tract or lacerated tissue (like a vaginal tear or C-section cut) after giving birth.
Many infections form from C-section incisions. Laboring before undergoing an unplanned C-section — which can cause additional trauma to the uterus, cervix, vagina or perineum — raises the risk even more.
But C-sections aren’t the only culprits behind postpartum infections. Women who had premature rupture of membranes, also known as PROM, are also at greater risk.
What's more, infections are more likely to occur in women with a retained placenta, those who had cervical or vaginal lacerations, and those who had repeated vaginal examinations during labor or experienced excessive bleeding after birth.
What are the signs of a postpartum infection?
Symptoms of postpartum infection can be vague at first and vary depending on where the infection is. But in general, they’re marked by signs including:
How are postpartum infections treated?
Postpartum infections can quickly become serious or even life-threatening, so they almost always require treatment with antibiotics. The drugs might be given orally or through an IV, depending on the infection and its severity.
Most of the antibiotics used to treat postpartum infections are safe to take while breastfeeding. But if you’re nursing, you should still confirm with your doctor that the recommended treatment is breastfeeding-compatible and find out about any possible risks.
For instance, antibiotics like ciprofloxacin and ofloxacin, while safe for nursing moms to take, aren’t usually recommended as a front-line treatment since women are encouraged to pump and dump for at least two hours after dosing.
Your practitioner will work with you to find the best treatment option that allows you to keep feeding your baby safely.
Can you prevent a postpartum infection?
It’s not always possible to avoid a postpartum infection, but there are steps you can take to reduce your risk as much as possible. If you do get sick, seek help sooner rather than later, when the infection is easier to treat.
When to call the doctor
You should let your doctor know right away if you notice any signs of a possible infection. In rare cases, infections can trigger a life-threatening reaction called sepsis.
You should seek emergency medical attention right away if you have any possible symptoms, including fever, chills, clamminess, rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, feelings of confusion or extreme pain.
Even though postpartum infections are rare, the thought of getting one can be nerve-wracking. Be proactive by keeping wounds clean and talking to your doctor about concerning symptoms instead of trying to tough it out. Seeking help quickly is the best way to feel better — so you can get back to enjoying your new bundle.