Caesarean section - Risks 

Risks of a caesarean section 

Although it is a common procedure, a caesarean section is still major abdominal surgery. Like any operation, it carries a certain amount of risk.

Compared to a vaginal birth, a caesarean section increases the chance of needing to be admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU). However, this is still uncommon.

Risks to you

The main risks when having a caesarean section include:

  • infection of the wound
  • infection of the womb lining, known as endometritis, which can cause fever, womb pain, and abnormal vaginal discharge or heavy bleeding
  • blood clot (thrombosis) in your legs, which can be dangerous if part of the clot breaks off and lodges in the lungs
  • excess bleeding
  • damage to your bladder or ureter (the tube that connects the kidney and bladder), which may require further surgery

However, a recent change in practice means that infections should become a lot less common. Doctors now give women a single dose of antibiotics just before operating, which reduces the risk of developing an infection more than if antibiotics are given after the operation.

Aspiration

In the unlikely event you need a caesarean section under general anaesthetic, there is a risk that you will vomit during your operation. If this happens, food and fluid particles can pass from your stomach into your lungs. This is known as aspiration.

This can cause potentially serious swelling (inflammation) of the lungs, known as aspiration pneumonia.

Eating during labour may increase the amount of food and fluid in your stomach, and increase your risk of aspiration if you need to have an emergency caesarean.

If there is an increased chance you may need to have a caesarean section during labour, drinking isotonic drinks (that have the same concentrations of salt and sugar as human body fluid) can give you energy during labour, without giving you a full stomach.

Risks to your baby

Having a caesarean section has not been shown to increase or decrease the risk of your baby having the most serious complications, such as an injury to the nerves in the neck and arms, bleeding inside the skull, cerebral palsy or death. These complications are very rare and affect fewer than 20 in 10,000 babies.

Sometimes a baby’s skin may be cut when the opening in the womb is made. This happens in 2 out of every 100 babies delivered by caesarean section, but usually heals without any further harm.

Breathing difficulties

The most common problem affecting babies born by caesarean section is difficulty breathing, although this is mainly an issue for babies born prematurely. For babies born at or after 39 weeks by caesarean section, this breathing risk is reduced significantly to a level similar to that associated with vaginal delivery.

Straight after the birth, and in the first few days of life, your baby may breathe abnormally fast. This is called transient tachypnoea. Most newborns with transient tachypnoea recover completely within two or three days.

If you think your baby is experiencing breathing difficulties, see your GP or call NHS 111 straight away. Treatment with oxygen may be necessary.

Page last reviewed: 17/07/2014

Next review due: 17/07/2016

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