Sepsis: a rare but serious complication

Look out for signs of sepsis
Look out for signs of sepsis
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DOCTOR CALLING: By Dr Kevin Hill

Without quick treatment, sepsis can lead to multiple organ failure and death. There are around 123,000 cases of sepsis a year in England and round 37,000 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 vulnerable.

People most at risk of sepsis include those:

• With a medical condition or receiving medical treatment that weakens their immune system;

• Who are already in hospital with a serious illness;

• Who are very young or very old;

• Who have just had surgery or who have wounds or injuries as a result of an accident.

Early symptoms of sepsis may include a high temperature (fever) or low body temperature, chills and shivering, a fast heartbeat and fast breathing. 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;

• Diarrhoea; 

• 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.

Seek medical advice urgently from NHS 111 if you’ve recently had an infection or injury and you 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. 

Sepsis is often diagnosed based on simple measurements such as your temperature, heart rate and breathing rate. Other tests can help determine the type of infection, where it’s located and which body functions have been affected. These include:

• Urine or stool samples;

• A wound culture – where a small sample of tissue, skin or fluid is taken from the affected area for testing;

• Respiratory secretion testing – taking a sample of saliva, phlegm or mucus;

• Blood pressure tests;

If sepsis is detected early and hasn’t 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.

Because of problems with vital organs, people with severe sepsis are likely to be very ill and the condition can be fatal. However, sepsis is treatable if it is identified and treated quickly, and in most cases leads to a full recovery with no lasting problems.

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 and/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.