Septicaemia - a poisonous business

Septicaemia is often called 'blood poisoning' or 'severe sepsis'
. When lots of bacteria get into your system and start multiplying very rapidly, they release toxins into your bloodstream which can damage your organs, like your liver, heart and kidneys. If it's not treated early, it can be fatal - but fortunately, it's not common.

Why is septicaemia so dangerous?

Usually when you have an infection, your immune system fights it off. To do this, it causes local inflammation as white blood cells rush to the rescue in that part of the body. If the infection is throughout your body, your immune system can go into overdrive. This causes huge inflammation which is often more damaging than the infection itself.

Where does septicaemia come from?

The most common places for the bacteria which cause septicaemia to spread from include:

  • The lungs (severe chest infection such as pneumonia)
  • The waterworks (from a urine infection)
  • A surgical wound or a drip put in through the skin into a vein when you have surgery
  • From the bowels (e.g. appendicitis).

Who is at risk?

You are more likely to get septicaemia:

  • If you have recently had a major operation
  • The older you are (certainly about the age of about 60, the risk starts to rise)
  • If you are taking steroid tablets
  • If you are on chemotherapy (usually for cancer) or have a medical condition (such as leukaemia) which affects your immune system
  • If you drink alcohol to excess
  • If you have diabetes
  • If you have suffered major burns.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of septicaemia tend to progress very quickly - often within a couple of hours. They include:

  • High temperature (often above 39°C, or 102.2°F)
  • Feeling hot and cold by turns
  • Feeling shivery all over
  • Palpitations with a rapid regular heartbeat
  • Feeling dizzy, especially when you try to stand
  • Feeling confused or disorientated
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhoea.

What do I do?

If you think someone you know might have septicaemia, you must call an ambulance immediately. Getting treatment early can be life-saving.

What are the treatments?

Obviously, septicaemia needs to be treated with antibiotics given into a vein (rather than by mouth) for seven to ten days to get rid of the infection. Other treatment will depend on which organs are affected. Blood pressure often drops very low, and medicines can help raise this. They may need to go on to a ventilator if they can't breathe on their own, or on to dialysis if their kidneys are severely affected. Your loved one will usually have to be monitored very closely in an intensive care unit until they are well on the way to recovery.

The earlier your loved one is treated, the better their prospects.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.