We hear a lot in the media about the risk of sepsis, which affects about one in 500 people in the UK each year. It’s your body’s reaction to overwhelming infection, and it can kill, especially if not caught early. That’s why recognising the signs and getting help fast saves lives.
What is sepsis and what are the risk factors?
You’ve probably heard the term ‘septicaemia’ – commonly called blood poisoning, this is the medical word for infection in the bloodstream. Sepsis, by contrast, involves your whole body – you get an infection deep in your system, and as the germs multiply and release poisons, your body goes into overdrive. Unfortunately, this over-reaction by your body in response to severe infection is what does much of the harm in sepsis. We don’t know exactly why many people can be exposed to the same germ, and most will fight it off with no ill effects, while a few will develop sepsis. We think the natural levels of steroids and other chemicals in your body play a part. But so does your immune system, which normally helps you fight off infection.
Perhaps not surprisingly, you’re at greater risk of sepsis if your immune system isn’t in top form. Lots of things can make your immune system less efficient, including simply getting older (over-75s). Children aged under one often have an immature immune system, so they’re at higher risk too. But being pregnant, blood cancers, cancer treatment, diabetes, excess alcohol and steroid tablets can all affect your body’s ability to fight off severe infection. Having surgery or a catheter also increases your risk.
Men are more likely than women to develop sepsis – but they’re also more likely to recover from it. Although you can’t avoid getting older, you can cut your risk of sepsis by not smoking and avoiding excess alcohol.
Sepsis signs and symptoms
The first warning sign of sepsis is often the original infection. This could be anything from a nasty cough, an infected patch of skin, burning and stinging when you pass water, to diarrhoea and vomiting or aching muscles. Later symptoms can be vague, especially at first and particularly in children. That’s why it’s so important to be alert for possible symptoms and seek medical help quickly. I’m grateful to the charity Sepsis Trust for their useful checklist: Adult sepsis safety net
Signs and symptoms to watch out for include:
- A very high temperature or sometimes feeling very cold
- Severe shivering
- Extreme sleepiness or confusion
- Dizziness and feeling faint
- Cold, clammy or mottled skin
- Repeated vomiting, with or without severe tummy pain or diarrhoea
- Not wanting to eat
- Slurring of speech
- A rash which doesn’t fade when you press a glass against it
- Rapid breathing and heart rate and
- Not passing much urine (in babies, this often means no wet nappies, especially if they don’t have any wet nappies for 24 hours - read Child sepsis safety net). Sepsis can cause very cold hands and feet, even though the rest of the body is boiling hot. In young children, it may be even harder to spot signs of sepsis – so again, if in doubt, check it out with a doctor.
If your doctor suspects sepsis, they’ll refer you straight to hospital as an emergency. There, you’ll be admitted – possibly to an intensive care unit, where every element of your body’s responses can be carefully monitored. You’ll almost certainly need antibiotics, given through a drip directly into your vein. Fluids and other treatments you need can be given that way, too. You’re likely to need scans to check if any pus has built up anywhere in your body, and this may need to be removed with an operation.
Caught at an early stage, the outlook for recovery from sepsis is pretty good. If it’s left until later, sepsis can cause a variety of complications. These include abnormal blood clots in blood vessels all over your body; failure of glands that produce hormones essential for your body’s normal working; and major problems with the working of your kidneys, liver or heart.
Recovering from sepsis can take many months, even after you leave hospital. You may get easily tired or breathless, or get joint pains, fluid retention or chest pains. It can also leave your mood low. However, your doctor is there to help – and not recovering is even more unthinkable.
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.