Written by Dr Claudia Pastides, 18th December 2019
What is sepsis?
Sepsis is a condition that can be life-threatening if not treated urgently. It is not an infection, but an abnormal or over-the-top response by the body to an infection. This exaggerated response leads to the person feeling incredibly unwell and, in severe cases, their blood pressure dropping and organs shutting down.
People talk a lot about sepsis online and on TV because by raising awareness of this response to infections, we’re more likely to spot it in ourselves and others. And the earlier it is spotted, the sooner it can be treated and the less likely someone will die as a result.
Sepsis is not an infection that you can catch from others and the really tricky thing about sepsis is that you can’t predict who is going to progress from an infection to sepsis.
Although anyone with an infection can get sepsis, some people are more likely to develop it than others. For example, babies under 1 year of age and people aged over 75. Having a weakened immune system, or a long term health condition such as diabetes can also make you more susceptible to sepsis. As does having had surgery recently or if you have just given birth.
If you think you or someone else has sepsis, call 999.
Spotting sepsis isn’t always easy. There are a few typical symptoms that you’ll see in many people with sepsis, but not everyone presents in the same way.
Typical sepsis symptoms in adults and children include:
- Acting confused, slurring speech or saying random and strange things
- Blotchy, pale or blue skin
- A rash that doesn’t fade when rolling a glass tumbler over it (like in meningitis)
- Finding it hard to breathe or breathing very quickly
In children you might also find the following symptoms:
- Being more sleepy than usual
- Crying very weakly or in a high pitched way that isn’t normal for them
- Not behaving as usual, such as not wanting to play or eat
Signs of sepsis
In medicine, symptoms and signs are often described as two different things. Symptoms refer to things noticed by the person with sepsis. Signs are what is seen by the healthcare professional examining you. There will always be some overlap between the two.
The signs of sepsis that a healthcare professional might find when they examine someone with sepsis include: low blood pressure, high heart rate, increased breathing rate, high or low temperature, reduced oxygen concentration in the blood and confusion.
Healthcare professionals often use those values, together with blood tests, to work out if someone has sepsis or not. They’ll also examine and investigate to try and find what infection it is that caused the sepsis, so that it can be treated.
Treatment for sepsis
Treatment usually includes medication to get rid of the infection that set off sepsis in the first place, for example antibiotics for a bacterial infection or antifungals for a fungal infection.
Alongside this, people with sepsis also tend to need fluids to be given via an intravenous drip and a lot of monitoring to make sure that they’re responding well to treatment.
Frequently asked questions about sepsis
1. What is sepsis and how do you get it?
Sepsis is an overwhelming response by the body to an infection. You get it if you catch an infection, caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi.
2. How long does sepsis treatment take?
It depends. Sepsis can be more easily treated if caught in the earlier stages, sometimes needing a week of treatment. In more severe cases, sepsis requires admission to intensive care, which can vary in length of time.
3. Can you get sepsis twice?
Unfortunately, yes, you can. Sepsis happens as a result of the body’s response to infection. So if you had sepsis because of a bacterial pneumonia one time, you can get sepsis another time from a bacterial urinary tract infection caused by a very different type of bacteria, or even from another bacterial or viral chest infection.
4. What does it mean if a person is septic?
A septic person is someone with an infection that has developed sepsis. They will usually have some or all of the symptoms and signs mentioned earlier.
5. What is the most common cause of sepsis?
The most common causes tend to be pneumonia (a chest infection), urinary infections (such as of the kidney or bladder), septicaemia (infection of the bloodstream) and infections of the digestive system (such as C.Diff infection of the bowel).
6. Can sepsis be completely cured?
Yes, with early treatment, sepsis can be treated before any lasting long term problems happen. Potential long term problems include: lasting damage to the main organs of the body (such as the brain, heart and kidneys). Sepsis can also cause clots to happen in the blood and these can block off the blood supply to body parts, leading to tissue death and gangrene, often of the hands or feet.
7. What are the early symptoms of sepsis?
The early symptoms tend to be symptoms of infection, such as a high fever and feeling generally unwell.
Unfortunately it isn’t always easy to know whether the way someone is feeling is due to the start of sepsis or just the usual cold and flu symptoms. So this is why it’s important to be aware of the sepsis symptoms mentioned earlier and if the cold or flu-like symptoms get worse and start to resemble those - it’s a good idea to speak to a doctor.
8. What are the chances of surviving sepsis?
Most people survive sepsis. Of those with sepsis, rough estimates suggest that 80-90% will survive. In cases of severe sepsis, between 50-80% are likely to survive and for septic shock, when the blood pressure drops to dangerously low levels, 20-60% survive.1
If you think that you or someone else might have sepsis, call 999. If you don’t think it is sepsis but would like to discuss any symptoms you are worried about, contact a GP today.
- Martin, G. (2012). Sepsis, severe sepsis and septic shock: changes in incidence, pathogens and outcomes. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3488423/
The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of a doctor with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never delay seeking or disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read here.