Group B streptococcus (GBS) is a type of bacteria that many women carry in their vagina. If passed to the newborn during the birth process, it can cause serious illness.
GBS bacteria live in the intestinal tract and are usually harmless. Twenty percent of pregnant women carry GBS in their birth canal or rectum at any given time and most women will have GBS at some point in their lives. It is not a sexually transmitted disease. Although 99% of infants who come in contact with GBS during the birth process do not become ill, those who do can develop severe, life-threatening complications. Fortunately, treatment is available.
GBS itself is not a disease, but it can cause serious illnesses including sepsis (blood infection), pneumonia, and meningitis. Most infants infected with GBS develop symptoms in their first week of life, but symptoms sometimes appear when the infant is 1 week to 3 months old.
Fifteen to 30% of babies who survive meningitis triggered by GBS may have long-term health problems such as hearing and vision loss, learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, and seizure disorders.
When you are 35- to 37-weeks pregnant, your doctor may take a culture by swabbing the outer part of the vagina and rectum and have it tested for GBS as part of the routine workup. Carriers of GBS usually have no symptoms. Results are available in a few days.
Some doctors do not test for GBS; instead, they will treat any woman who has a risk factor associated with GBS infection in newborns, including:
If a test indicates you carry GBS, your doctor will give you intravenous antibiotics during your labor and delivery.
If you are not tested for GBS but are considered high-risk, your doctor will give you the same antibiotic treatment.
There is no way to avoid contracting GBS. While antibiotics can treat GBS infection, the bacteria are very widespread and carriers often have no symptoms. There’s currently no role for treatment with antibiotics prior to labor.
Efforts are underway to create a vaccine that may protect mothers and their newborns in the future.
Q: I got strep throat during my pregnancy. Does that mean I have GBS?
A: Strep throat is commonly caused by Group A streptococcus, not Group B. You still may be a GBS carrier, though GBS did not cause your strep throat.
Q: If my test shows I carry GBS, will I be a carrier my whole life?
A: Usually not. GBS tends to come and go. If you test positive for GBS in your urine or have a baby who is infected with GBS, you will be considered GBS positive for the rest of your life and receive treatment during labor.
Reviewed By: Irina Burd, MD, PhD, Maternal Fetal Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.