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Sepsis warning signs you need to know

Sepsis is a reaction by the body to severe infection with a bacterial, viral or fungal germ. It’s always a medical emergency, and can be fatal if not caught early. You can arm yourself against this by knowing the symptoms so you can seek help early.

Recently I was doing my regular Radio 2 show with Jeremy Vine and he wanted to know why nobody had heard of sepsis ten years ago, when today it seems to be Public Enemy Number One? Was it actually any different to septicaemia?

Sepsis is a fairly new word, but it certainly isn't a new problem. Septicaemia, sometimes known as blood poisoning, happens when an infection spreads through your bloodstream. Sepsis is an infection affecting the whole body, and strictly speaking refers to the way your body responds to this infection.

About 1 in 500 people develop sepsis in the UK every year. It's more likely if your immune system isn't as strong as it should be. This means children (whose immune system is still developing) and over-75s (your immune system wanes with age) are at high risk. Your risks are also raised if you're on steroids or cancer treatment, or have a medical condition like blood cancer; if you have had surgery or drink a lot of alcohol; if you have a long-term catheter or diabetes.

The signs to look for

The Sepsis Trust, which campaigns to raise awareness of sepsis, has developed a checklist to help you spot signs of possible sepsis:

Slurred speech or confusion.
Extreme shivering or muscle pain.
Passing no urine (in a day).
Severe breathlessness or sleepiness.
It feels like you're going to die or pass out.
Skin mottled or discoloured.

An extremely high or a very low temperature; repeated vomiting; seizures; and a rash which doesn't fade when you press a glass against it are also possible 'red flags'.

In children, the signs may be different. You should 'think sepsis' if a child:

  • Is breathing very fast.
  • Is confused or disorientated.
  • Has a 'fit' or convulsion.
  • Has clammy, cold skin and looks blue, pale or patchy (mottled).
  • Has a rash that does not fade when you press it.
  • Is very lethargic or difficult to wake.
  • Feels abnormally cold to touch.

In under-5s, not feeding, repeated vomiting or no wet nappies for 12 hours are also concerning. If you have any of these symptoms, don't delay - early treatment saves lives.

Early diagnosis saves lives

If a doctor suspects sepsis, you'll be admitted to hospital immediately. Treatment depends partly on the cause - for instance, bacterial infections will be treated with antibiotics given through a drip into your bloodstream, and you may need surgery to remove collections of pus which have built up.

In the meantime, you'll have supportive treatment to help your body keep going: fluid through a drip, oxygen through a mask; and possible admission to an intensive care unit for breathing and other support.

Without early diagnosis, between 1 and 5 in 10 people with sepsis won't survive. But with early treatment, the outlook is much better. It can be a long road to recovery, though. Sepsis affects your whole body, and can stop your kidneys and liver from functioning properly or your blood from clotting. You're likely to be in hospital for several weeks, and may need support at home for several months.

A condition called 'post-sepsis syndrome' can leave you feeling tired, weak and short of breath. You may be off your food, prone to frequent infections and suffer from joint and chest pains. In addition, sepsis can take its toll mentally, leaving you depressed and anxious.

That means you'll need support and understanding from your family. Don't expect to bounce back to health: take things gently, increasing your levels of activity very slowly. If you're struggling with day-to-day activities like shopping, cooking or cleaning, your local Social Services department can help with services like home help and 'meals at home' (meals on wheels).

With thanks to My Weekly where this was originally published.

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