When you start to feel the first stirrings of a sore throat, runny nose and achy joints, you probably just think you’ve picked up a cold from the office. But in some cases, flu-like symptoms can actually be a sign of something much more serious, and recognising the signs of sepsis blood poisoning could potentially save someone’s life. What is sepsis and what are the symptoms?

Sepsis deaths are on the rise. Data collected by leading specialist Prof Sir Brian Jarman, director of the Dr Foster research unit at Imperial College, London, has revealed that deaths recorded in England’s hospitals have risen by more than a third in two years.

So what exactly is it and how do you contract it?

What is sepsis?

Sepsis occurs when the immune system overreacts to an infection or injury.

The immune system is designed to fight infections, but sometimes it can go into overdrive and mistakenly attack the body’s organs and tissues.

Sepsis develops when the chemicals that the immune system releases into the bloodstream to fight a localised infection cause inflammation throughout the entire body instead.

If it’s not treated quickly, sepsis can eventually lead to multiple organ failure and death.

It’s often referred to as blood poisoning or septicaemia, which is bacteria in the bloodstream, but sepsis can affect multiple organs, even without blood poisoning.

 

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What are the symptoms?

As mentioned earlier, the initial symptoms of sepsis can often be confused as the flu. Symptoms can appear differently in different people, say the UK Sepsis Trust. The symptoms also differ between adults and children so the warning signs won’t look the same in everyone.

Dr Ron Daniels, CEO of the UK Sepsis Trust said: “Many children who lose their lives to sepsis have underlying complex health problems. It is, thankfully less common for sepsis to strike a healthy and normal child. However, as tragic cases like Sam Morrish [who died in 2010 age 3] and William Mead [who died in 2014 at 12 months old] remind us, this mustn’t mean we let our guard down.

“There is no one shortlist of symptoms which describes the myriad ways in which sepsis can present in both adults and children. Children’s physiology is different, and the range of infections which gives rise to sepsis in children is slightly different from that in adults.”

He added: “This symptoms list provided by the UK Sepsis Trust is a guide; if a loved one is very unwell with an infection, and displays any of those symptoms, it’s imperative they go straight to A&E.”

Sepsis symptoms in adults:

  • Slurred speech or confusion
  • Extreme shivering or muscle pain
  • Passing no urine (in a day)
  • Severe breathlessness
  • Feelin like you’re going to die
  • Skin mottled or discoloured

Sepsis symptoms in children:

The trust say that if your child is unwell with either a fever or very low temperature (or has had a fever in the last 24 hours), you should call 999 and just ask: could it be sepsis?

  • Very fast breathing
  • Fits or convulsion
  • Skin looking mottled, bluish, or pale
  • A rash that does not fade when you press it
  • Lethargic or difficult to wake
  • Feels abnormally cold to touch

Sepsis symptoms in children under 5

  • Is not feeding
  • Is vomiting repeatedly
  • Has not passed urine for 12 hours

What to do if you notice any symptoms

Sepsis in children Mother hand holding child hand who have IV solution in the hospital

“The critical thing is that any parent who is very worried about their child with an infection must trust their instincts and be prepared to ask whether it could it be sepsis,” says Daniels.

Whenever there are signs of infection, especially if you or a loved one deteriorating, it’s crucial to seek medical attention urgently. Infection can be caused by anything from a small cut or insect bite to a chest infection or UTI.

“Just Ask: ‘Could it be sepsis?’ says Daniels. “With every hour that passes before the right antibiotics are administered, risk of death increases.”

Who is at risk?

Sepsis cases are on the rise in hospitals. This is because you’re more likely to develop it if you’ve recently had surgery, you’ve had a urinary catheter fitted or you have to stay in hospital for a long time.

The NHS says that everybody is potentially at risk of developing sepsis from minor infections.

what is sepsis
(Peter Byrne/PA)

You may also be more vulnerable if you have a medical condition that weakens your immune system, are receiving treatment that weakens the immune system, are very young or very old, have just had surgery, or have wounds or injuries as a result of an accident.

When should you seek help?

You should try to see your GP immediately if you’ve have recently had an infection or injury and you’re displaying the symptoms of sepsis.

Septic shock – where organ damage leads to dangerously low blood pressure – is a medical emergency. Call 999 immediately and ask for an ambulance.

What is the treatment?

The treatment for sepsis varies, depending on the severity of the case and the cause of the initial infection.

If it’s diagnosed early enough and has not damaged vital organs, it’s possible to treat the infection at home with antibiotics, and make a full recovery.

If the condition is more severe, you may need to to be admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU). This can support any affected body functions, such as breathing or blood circulation, while the medical staff focus on treating the infection.

The NHS say: “Because of problems with vital organs, people with severe sepsis are likely to be very ill. Up to 4 in every 10 people with the condition will die.

“Septic shock is even more serious, with an estimated 6 in every 10 cases proving fatal.

“However, sepsis is treatable if it is identified and treated quickly, and in most cases leads to full recovery with no lasting problems.”

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