Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that arises when the body’s response to an infection injures its own tissues and organs. Common signs and symptoms include a fever, increased heart rate, increased breathing rates and confusion.
Sepsis is a rare condition that can present similar to flu, gastroenteritis, or a chest infection.
There are around 245,000 patients developing sepsis annually across the UK and according to a report in the 2018 Lancet Journal of Respiratory Medicine by Prof Sir Brian Jarman there is a mortality rate of about 20%. This equates to about 49,700 lives lost each year in the UK alone.
Anyone can develop sepsis after an injury or minor infection, although some people are more vulnerable. Sepsis is the biggest direct cause of death within UK pregnancies.
People most at risk of sepsis include those with a medical condition or those receiving medical treatment that weakens their immune system, those already in hospital with a serious illness, the very young or very old, those who have just had surgery or who have wounds or injuries as a result of an accident.
Although sepsis is often referred to as either blood poisoning or septicaemia, these terms refer to the invasion of bacteria into the bloodstream. Sepsis can affect multiple organs or the entire body, even without blood poisoning or septicaemia. Sepsis can be caused by viral or fungal infections, although bacterial infections are by far the most common cause. Severe sepsis and septic shock are both medical emergencies.
If you think someone in your care has one of these conditions, go straight to A & E or call 999.
The UK Sepsis Trust have come up with a useful mnemonic for sepsis:
S, slurred speech,
E, extreme shivering or muscle pain,
P, passing no urine in a day,
S, severe breathlessness,
I, I feel like I might die,
S, skin mottled or discoloured.
With regards to children, NHS advice is to go straight to A&E or call 999 if a child looks mottled, bluish, pale, or is very lethargic or difficult to wake, feels abnormally cold to the touch, is breathing very fast, has a rash that doesn’t fade when you press it, or finally, has a seizure or a convulsion.
Sepsis symptoms in older children and adults may include a high temperature, or a low body temperature, chills and shivering, a fast heart rate or fast breathing. In some cases, symptoms of more severe sepsis or septic shock are when the blood pressure drops to a dangerously low level, and these can include feeling dizzy or faint, and a changing mental state such as confusion or disorientation, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting, slurred speech, severe muscle pain, severe breathlessness, or less urine production than normal, for example, not urinating for a day. Also cold, clammy, or pale, mottled skin, and finally, a loss of consciousness.
Sepsis is often diagnosed based on simple measurements such as your temperature, heart rates and breathing. A blood test may be required and other tests can help determine the type of infection, where it’s located, and which body functions have been affected. If sepsis is detected early and it hasn’t affected any organs yet, it’s possible to treat at home with antibiotics. Most people who have sepsis detected at this stage make a full recovery. Almost all people with severe sepsis and septic shock require admission to hospital and some people may require admission to an intensive care unit. Because of a problem with vital organs, people with severe sepsis are likely to be very ill and the condition could be fatal. However, sepsis is treatable if it’s identified and treated quickly and most cases lead to a full recovery with no lasting problems.