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Sepsis and septicaemia (blood poisoning)

What is sepsis?

Sepsis is a life-threatening complication of an infection when the body's immune defences react in an extreme way. It occurs when the response of the immune system to infection damages the body.

Sepsis can occur as a result of problems spreading from other parts of the body, such as chest infections, urinary infections, ulcers bursting in the stomach, or cuts and bites on the skin.

Sepsis is sometimes referred to as septicaemia or blood poisoning, but strictly speaking septicaemia means invasion of bacteria into the bloodstream, whereas sepsis can affect organs inside the body without blood poisoning.

Sepsis is a medical emergency and the NHS is taking extra steps to check for signs and symptoms of the condition in hospital so that treatment can begin as soon as possible.

There are three stages of sepsis:

  1. Sepsis - infection is present, or probably present, and there are symptoms including high or low temperature, fast heart rate, fast breathing rate.
  2. Severe sepsis - when the infection starts to interfere with the functioning of organs of the body.
  3. Septic shock - symptoms and signs of severe sepsis, plus blood pressure drops to dangerous levels despite appropriate treatment, and organs are prevented from getting enough oxygenated blood.

Sepsis symptoms

Symptoms of sepsis include:

  • Fever, but sometimes the body temperature may be normal or even low
  • Chills and severe shaking
  • Heart beating very fast, sometimes with rapid breathing

Symptoms of severe sepsis or septic shock include:

  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Agitation
  • Dizziness, particularly when standing up
  • Fast respiratory rate
  • Decreased urination
  • Diarrhoea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Skin is cold, pale and clammy or mottled
  • Blue discolouration of lips
  • Rash - some people with septicaemia develop a reddish discolouration or small dark red dots throughout the body
  • Joint pain in the wrists, elbows, back, hips, knees, or  ankles.

People at risk of sepsis

  • People whose immune system (the body's defence against microbes) is not functioning well because of an illness (such as cancer or AIDS) or because of medical treatment (such as chemotherapy for cancer or steroids for a number of medical conditions) that weakens the immune system are more prone to develop sepsis. It is important to remember that even healthy people can develop from sepsis.
  • Because their immune systems are not completely developed, very young babies may get sepsis if they become infected and are not treated in a timely manner. Often, if they develop signs of an infection such as fever, infants have to receive antibiotics and be admitted to hospital. Sepsis in the very young is often more difficult to diagnose because the typical signs of sepsis (fever, changes in behaviour) may not be present or may be more difficult to identify.
  • Pregnant women and older people, especially those with other conditions, such as diabetes, are at increased risk as well.
  • The number of people developing sepsis in the UK appears to be increasing with around 123,000 cases of sepsis in England each year.  There are also more than 44,000 deaths due to sepsis in the UK each year. Because of our ageing population, the number of older people with weak immune systems has also grown.
  • Finally, because of the increased and often inappropriate use of antibiotics to treat illnesses caused by viruses and not bacteria, many strains of bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics, making the treatment of sepsis more difficult in some cases.

WebMD Medical Reference

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