Neonatal Sepsis: A Review of Pathophysiology and Current Management Strategies

Margaret A. Glaser, Lauren M. Hughes, Amy Jnah, Desi Newberry, Pamela A. Harris-Haman

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Background: Early-onset sepsis, occurring within 72 hours of birth, and late-onset sepsis, occurring after this time period, present serious risks for neonates. While culture-based screening and intrapartum antibiotics have decreased the number of early-onset cases, sepsis remains a top cause of neonatal morbidity and mortality in the United States. Purpose: To provide a review of neonatal sepsis by identifying its associated risk factors and most common causative pathogens, reviewing features of the term and preterm neonatal immune systems that increase vulnerability to infection, describing previous and the most current management recommendations, and discussing relevant implications for the neonatal nurse and novice neonatal nurse practitioner. Methods/Search Strategy: An integrative review of literature was conducted using key words in CINAHL, Google Scholar, and PubMed. Findings/Results: Group B streptococcus and Escherichia coli are the most common pathogens in early-onset sepsis, while Coagulase-negative staphylococci comprise the majority of cases in late-onset. The neonatal immune system is vulnerable due to characteristics including decreased cellular activity, underdeveloped complement systems, preferential anti-inflammatory responses, and insufficient pathogenic memory. Blood cultures remain the criterion standard of diagnosis, with several other adjunct tests under investigation for clinical use. The recent development of the sepsis calculator has been a useful tool in the management of early-onset cases. Implications for Practice: It is vital to understand the mechanisms behind the neonate's elevated risk for infection and to implement evidence-based management. Implications for Research: Research needs exist for diagnostic methods that deliver timely and sensitive results. A tool similar to the sepsis calculator does not exist for preterm infants or late-onset sepsis, groups for which antibiotic stewardship is not as well practiced. Video Abstract available at

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)49-60
Number of pages12
JournalAdvances in Neonatal Care
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • diagnosis
  • immunity
  • implications
  • management
  • neonatal early-onset sepsis
  • neonatal intensive care
  • neonatal late-onset sepsis
  • neonatal sepsis
  • pathophysiology
  • risk factors

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health


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