Umbilical Cord Infection (Newborn)

The umbilical cord connects the unborn baby to the mother in the uterus. After birth, the cord is no longer needed. It is cut and then clamped. This leaves a small stump.

In most cases, the umbilical cord stump dries up and falls off the newborn within the first few weeks of life. But sometimes an infection can develop. This may cause the area around the cord to swell and become inflamed, red, or tender. There may be cloudy, discolored, or bad-smelling discharge from the cord. There may also be oozing or slight bleeding.

To treat the umbilical cord infection, the healthcare provider may prescribe medicine and give instructions for cord care at home. Or your baby may need to be admitted to the hospital to get antibiotics through an intravenous (IV) line. This is because newborns are more prone to infections.

Home care

Medicines

Your child may be prescribed medicine for infection. If so, follow all instructions for giving this medicine to your child. Make sure your child takes all the medicine, even if they seem to feel better.

General care

  • Wash your hands well before and after caring for the cord.

  • Clean the area around the cord as directed. You may be told to use a clean, moist cloth, alcohol pads, or a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol. Remove all drainage and clean an inch around the base. If there is a little drainage present, you may be advised to use antibiotic ointment after each cleaning. Pat the area with a clean cloth and allow it to air-dry.

  • Roll your child’s diapers down below the belly button (navel) until the infection has healed. This helps prevent contamination from urine and stool. If needed, cut a notch in the front of the diapers to make a space for the cord.

  • Don’t dress your baby in clothing that is tight across the cord.

  • Don’t put your baby in bathwater until the infection has cleared and the cord has fallen off. Instead, bathe your baby with a sponge or damp washcloth.

  • Don’t use talc or other powders on the cord.

  • Don’t try to remove the cord. It will fall off on its own.

  • Watch for continuing signs of infection. This includes redness, swelling, and cloudy, discolored, or bad-smelling drainage in the area around the cord.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your child’s healthcare provider as directed.

When to get medical advice

Call your child’s healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • Your child has a fever (see “Fever and children” below).

  • Your child’s signs of infection get worse or do not improve within 2 days of starting treatment.

  • Your child won’t stop crying or seems to be in pain when you touch the area around the cord and navel.

  • There is increased bleeding from the cord.

  • Your child develops a rash, pimples, or blisters around the navel.

  • Your child refuses to feed.

  • Your child is very sleepy or not moving around as much as usual.

  • Your child seems ill or has any other symptoms that concern you.

Fever and children

Use a digital thermometer to check your child’s temperature. Don’t use a mercury thermometer. There are different kinds and uses of digital thermometers. They include:

  • Rectal. For children younger than 3 years, a rectal temperature is the most accurate.

  • Forehead (temporal). This works for children age 3 months and older. If a child under 3 months old has signs of illness, this can be used for a first pass. The provider may want to confirm with a rectal temperature.

  • Ear (tympanic). Ear temperatures are accurate after 6 months of age, but not before.

  • Armpit (axillary). This is the least reliable but may be used for a first pass to check a child of any age with signs of illness. The provider may want to confirm with a rectal temperature.

  • Mouth (oral). Don’t use a thermometer in your child’s mouth until he or she is at least 4 years old.

Use the rectal thermometer with care. Follow the product maker’s directions for correct use. Insert it gently. Label it and make sure it’s not used in the mouth. It may pass on germs from the stool. If you don’t feel OK using a rectal thermometer, ask the healthcare provider what type to use instead. When you talk with any healthcare provider about your child’s fever, tell him or her which type you used.

Below are guidelines to know if your young child has a fever. Your child’s healthcare provider may give you different numbers for your child. Follow your provider’s specific instructions.

Fever readings for a baby under 3 months old:

  • First, ask your child’s healthcare provider how you should take the temperature.

  • Rectal or forehead: 100.4°F (38°C) or higher

  • Armpit: 99°F (37.2°C) or higher

Fever readings for a child age 3 months to 36 months (3 years):

  • Rectal, forehead, or ear: 102°F (38.9°C) or higher

  • Armpit: 101°F (38.3°C) or higher

Call the healthcare provider in these cases:

  • Repeated temperature of 104°F (40°C) or higher in a child of any age

  • Fever of 100.4° F (38° C) or higher in baby younger than 3 months

  • Fever that lasts more than 24 hours in a child under age 2

  • Fever that lasts for 3 days in a child age 2 or older

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