Sepsis, also known as blood poisoning, is the immune system’s overreaction to an infection or injury. Normally our immune system fights infection very well – but sometimes, for reasons unknown, it attacks our body’s own organs and tissues. If not treated rapidly it can result in organ failure and death, however with early diagnosis, it can be treated with antibiotics.
Sepsis symptoms in babies and children
Go straight to A&E or call 999 if your child has any of these symptoms:
- looks mottled, bluish or pale
- is very lethargic or difficult to wake
- feels abnormally cold to touch
- is breathing very fast
- has a rash that does not fade when you press it
- has a fit or convulsion
Get medical advice urgently from NHS 111
If your child has any of the symptoms listed below, is getting worse or is sicker than you’d expect (even if their temperature falls), trust your instincts and seek medical advice urgently from NHS 111.
- a temperature over 38C in babies under 3 months
- a temperature over 39C in babies aged 3 to 6 months
- any high temperature in a child who cannot be encouraged to show interest in anything
- a low temperature (below 36C – check 3 times in a 10-minute period)
- finding it much harder to breathe than normal – looks like hard work
- making “grunting” noises with every breath
- cannot say more than a few words at once (for older children who normally talk)
- breathing that obviously “pauses”
- not had a wee or wet nappy for 12 hours
Eating and drinking
- new baby under 1 month old with no interest in feeding
- not drinking for more than 8 hours (when awake)
- bile-stained (green), bloody or black vomit/sick
Activity and body
- soft spot on a baby’s head is bulging
- eyes look “sunken”
- child cannot be encouraged to show interest in anything
- baby is floppy
- weak, “whining” or continuous crying in a younger child
- older child who’s confused
- not responding or very irritable
- stiff neck, especially when trying to look up and down
Sepsis symptoms in older children and adults
Early symptoms of sepsis may include:
- a high temperature or a low body temperature
- chills and shivering
- a fast heartbeat
- problems or changes to your breathing
- feeling or acting differently from normal – you do not seem your usual self
Many of the symptoms of sepsis are also associated with meningitis.
The first symptoms of meningitis are often fever, vomiting, a headache and feeling unwell.
In some cases, symptoms of more severe sepsis or septic shock, when your blood pressure drops to a dangerously low level, develop soon after.
These can include:
- feeling dizzy or faint
- a change in mental state, such as confusion or disorientation
- nausea and vomiting
- slurred speech
- severe muscle pain
- severe breathlessness
- less urine production than normal – for example, not urinating for a day
- cold, clammy and pale or mottled skin
- loss of consciousness
When to get medical help
Seek medical advice urgently from NHS 111 if you have recently had an infection or injury and have possible early signs of sepsis.
If sepsis is suspected, you’ll usually be referred to hospital for further diagnosis and treatment.
Severe sepsis and septic shock are medical emergencies. If you think you or someone in your care has one of these conditions, go straight to A&E or call 999.
Tests to diagnose sepsis
Sepsis is often diagnosed based on simple measurements such as your temperature, heart rate and breathing rate. You may need to have a blood test.
Other tests can help determine the type of infection, where it’s located and which body functions have been affected.
- urine or stool samples
- a small sample of tissue, skin or fluid being taken from the affected area for testing (a wound culture)
- taking a sample of saliva, phlegm or mucus (respiratory secretion testing)
- blood pressure tests
- imaging studies, such as an X-ray, ultrasound scan or CT scan
Treatments for sepsis
If sepsis is detected early and has not affected vital organs yet, it may be possible to treat the infection at home with antibiotics.
Most people who have sepsis detected at this stage make a full recovery.
Almost all people with severe sepsis and septic shock require admission to hospital. Some people may require admission to an intensive care unit (ICU).
Because of problems with vital organs, people with severe sepsis are likely to be very ill and the condition can be fatal.
But sepsis is treatable if it’s identified and treated quickly, and in most cases leads to a full recovery with no lasting problems.
Recovering from sepsis
Some people make a full recovery fairly quickly.
The amount of time it takes to fully recover from sepsis varies, depending on:
- the severity of the sepsis
- the person’s overall health
- how much time was spent in hospital
- whether treatment was needed in an ICU
Some people experience long-term physical or psychological problems during their recovery period, such as:
- feeling lethargic or excessively tired
- muscle weakness
- swollen limbs or joint pain
- chest pain or breathlessness
These long-term problems are known as post-sepsis syndrome. Not everyone experiences these problems.
Who’s at risk
There are around 250,000 cases of sepsis a year in the UK according to the UK Sepsis Trust . At least 46,000 people die every year as a result of the condition.
Anyone can develop sepsis after an injury or minor infection, although some people are more at risk of sepsis.
- babies and elderly people
- people who are frail or have a weakened immune system
- people who have recently had surgery or a serious illness
Sepsis, septicaemia and blood poisoning
Although sepsis is often referred to as either blood poisoning or septicaemia, these terms refer to the invasion of bacteria into the bloodstream.
Sepsis can affect multiple organs or the entire body, even without blood poisoning or septicaemia.
Sepsis can also be caused by viral or fungal infections, although bacterial infections are by far the most common cause.
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Information provided by NHS.UK