Sepsis is a potentially life-threatening condition triggered by an infection or injury. It is also known as blood poisoning or septicaemia.
Symptoms of sepsis
In sepsis, the body's immune system goes into overdrive as it tries to fight an infection.
This can reduce the blood supply to vital organs such as the brain, heart and kidneys. Without quick treatment, sepsis can lead to multiple organ failure and death.
Early symptoms of sepsis are difficult to distinguish from most infections, and may include:
- a high temperature (fever); though this may not be present: and due to changes in the circulation (blood flow in the body) there may be a low body temperature instead
- chills and shivering
You should be aware about potential sepsis symptoms if you/your child/someone you are with:
- becomes very unwell
- are acting differently than they have previously when experiencing an infection
- have a fast heartbeat
- have fast breathing /difficulty breathing
In some cases, symptoms of more severe sepsis or septic shock develop soon after when your blood pressure drops to a dangerously low level.
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, or grey (ashen) appearance
- blue skin, lips or tongue (this is called cyanosis)
- loss of consciousness
When to seek medical advice
If sepsis is suspected, referral to hospital for further diagnosis and treatment is usual.
Severe sepsis and septic shock are medical emergencies. If you think you or someone in your care has one of these conditions, call 999 and ask for an ambulance.
How is sepsis diagnosed
Sepsis is often diagnosed based on simple measurements such as your temperature, heart rate and breathing rate. It may require a simple blood test.
Other tests may be carried out that can help find out the type of infection, where it's located and which body functions have been affected.
How sepsis is treated
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 (ICU).
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. In most cases, this leads to a full recovery with no lasting problems.
Recovering from sepsis
The amount of time it takes to fully recover from sepsis varies, depending on factors such as:
- 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 make a full recovery quicker than others and not everyone experiences long-term problems.
However, possible problems may include physical symptoms, such as:
- feeling lethargic or excessively tired
- muscle weakness
- swollen limbs or joint pain
- chest pain or breathlessness
- post-sepsis syndrome
People at risk
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
Sepsis, septicaemia and blood poisoning
Sepsis is often known as either blood poisoning or septicaemia. However, 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.
More useful links
The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.
For further information see terms and conditions.