A baby can develop an umbilical cord infection before or after birth.

Infections in newborns remain a leading cause of death worldwide, and doctors believe umbilical cord infections (UCIs) are a major factor in this.

However, in developed nations, serious complications from UCIs are rare, as long as the baby receives prompt medical treatment.

This article outlines some of the signs and symptoms of UCIs, before and after birth. We also list treatments a doctor may prescribe, along with tips on how to prevent these infections.

UCIs can occur before and after birth. Infections that occur before delivery usually do not cause any specific symptoms, but there may be signs of infected amniotic fluid. Infections that develop after birth may cause the cord stump to change color or bleed.

Below are some signs and symptoms of UCIs.

Before birth

If bacteria enter the vagina, it can cause an infection within the womb. If it spreads to the amniotic sac, it is known as chorioamnionitis. In some cases, the infection may involve the umbilical cord. Doctors refer to this as funisitis.

Funisitis increases the risk of childbirth complications, such as stillbirth. Babies who are born with funisitis may experience health complications, including organ damage and long-term developmental issues.

A woman who has chorioamnionitis symptoms is more likely to have a baby with funisitis. Some warning signs of chorioamnionitis include:

After birth

After a baby is born, a healthcare provider will clamp and cut the umbilical cord. This will leave behind a small umbilical stump, which typically dries up and falls off within the first few weeks of the baby’s life.

Sometimes, bacteria can infect the umbilical stump, which is known medically as omphalitis. This is an uncommon condition that affects about 0.7% of babies in developed nations.

Without prompt treatment, the infection can rapidly spread beyond the stump. As a result, omphalitis has a mortality rate of 7–15%.

Parents and caregivers should familiarize themselves with the following signs of an infected umbilical stump:

  • increased bleeding from the cord
  • discharge from the cord
  • bad odors coming from the cord
  • redness around the belly button or umbilical cord
  • a rash or blisters on or around the cord
  • fever
  • a baby who does not want to eat, or seems very sleepy
  • sudden changes in the baby’s behavior

Below are some factors that can increase a baby’s risk of developing a UCI:

  • The baby has a low birth weight.
  • The pregnant woman has chorioamnionitis or another type of infection during birth.
  • The woman’s amniotic membranes rupture 24 hours or more before delivery.
  • The baby is born in unsterile conditions, or a healthcare provider uses an unclean instrument to cut the umbilical cord.
  • Parents or caregivers do not properly care for the umbilical cord stump, for example, if a person pulls off the stump, or gets it dirty.

Any type of infection in a newborn can be an emergency. UCIs require prompt treatment to prevent the risk of complications.

A person should call their doctor immediately if their baby develops signs of an infection. If they cannot get in touch with them, a person should take the baby to their nearest emergency room or urgent care center.

After initial treatment for a UCI, a person should call a doctor if the baby develops any of the following:

  • symptoms that do not improve within a day or two
  • symptoms that get worse
  • new symptoms

In most cases, a doctor can treat chorioamnionitis with antibiotics. Sometimes, a woman may need to stay in the hospital or give birth early. A healthcare provider will also monitor the baby for signs of infection before and after birth.

Babies who have a UCI will need antibiotics, usually given intravenously. Depending on how severe the infection is, a doctor may recommend further antibiotic creams or oral medicines.

In some cases, a baby will need a hospital stay to complete their treatment.

Parents and caregivers should not provide home treatments or pain relievers until they have taken the baby to see a doctor. These remedies could mask the symptoms of a UCI.

They should also not bathe the baby in water until the UCI clears. Instead, they can wash the infant with a clean, damp washcloth or sponge.

It is not always possible to prevent chorioamnionitis. However, prompt treatment of infections in pregnant women can reduce the risk. They should contact their doctor if they have signs of ruptured membranes, fever, or foul-smelling vaginal discharge when pregnant.

The following strategies can help prevent a UCI after birth:

  • washing the hands before touching the umbilical cord
  • avoiding the use of unclean instruments to cut the umbilical cord
  • not picking or pulling off the umbilical cord
  • not placing powders or other home remedies on the cord
  • following your pediatrician’s advice on how to keep the umbilical cord clean
  • rolling down diapers, so they do not rub against the umbilical cord
  • paying attention to changes in the shape or appearance of the umbilical cord stump

With proper umbilical cord care, very few babies develop infections. However, it is important to look out for possible signs of a UCI. These include:

  • redness
  • increased bleeding
  • discharge from the umbilical stump
  • changes in the baby’s behavior

Prompt medical treatment can prevent the spread of infection and may save the baby’s life. With timely and appropriate medical care, almost all babies can recover.