Sepsis is a serious illness that occurs in response to an infection and can be life-threatening if not treated in a timely manner. In Australia, it is estimated that there are more than 15,000 new cases of sepsis a year, with approximately 5,000 people dying due to the illness.

As this is a very serious illness, it's important that people have an understanding of what it is. As such, we'll be taking a deep dive into what sepsis is, how it is spread, signs and symptoms, and treatment options.

Just remember that if you need support or someone to talk to, our Sonder support team is available 24/7 to chat whenever you need it.

What is sepsis and what causes it?

Sepsis - also known as septicaemia or blood poisoning - is a life-threatening illness that occurs when an existing infection triggers an extreme immune system response in the body, which results in damage to healthy tissues and organs, and can lead to death.

Any type of infection - viral, fungal or bacterial - can lead to sepsis. Bacterial infections of the lungs, urinary react (bladder, urethra, kidneys), abdomen, skin, and soft tissues are the most common cases that result in sepsis.

This illness can cause temporary or permanent organ damage, organ failure, septic shock and death. Those who have had severe septic shock may develop gangrene, which needs to be treated with the amputation of fingers, toes or limbs.

Anyone can get sepsis, but those at higher risk include:

  • Infants and children

  • Older adults

  • People of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent

  • People with a weakened immune system or are being treated for cancer

  • People who have just had surgery or given birth

  • People with a wound or injury.

If sepsis is suspected, a clinician will run a series of tests to assess vital signs and identify the original infection. This will also include a blood test for any complications, and the possibility of x-rays or other scans if the source of the original infection is difficult to determine.

Signs and symptoms

There are three stages of sepsis:

  • Sepsis - An infection gets into your bloodstream and causes inflammation in your body.

  • Severe sepsis - The infection and inflammation is severe enough to start affecting organ function.

  • Septic shock - Septic shock is a severe complication of sepsis that causes a significant drop in blood pressure. This can lead to many serious complications including:

    • Organ dysfunction

    • Respiratory or heart failure

    • Stroke

    • Possible death.

Each stage has its own set of signs and symptoms to be aware of. It's important to understand that sepsis can transition to severe sepsis and septic shock very quickly, and can become life-threatening.

For sepsis, this can include:

  • Fever and/or chills

  • Confusion or disorientation

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Fast heart rate or low blood pressure

  • Extreme pain and discomfort

  • Sweaty skin.

It is possible to mistake these symptoms for other illnesses, such as pneumonia or COVID-19.

For severe sepsis and septic shock, symptoms can overlap and may include:

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Bluish discolouration of the skin, lips, fingers, and/or toes

  • Body chills

  • Decreased urination

  • Dizziness

  • Changes in mental ability

  • Extreme weakness

  • Low platelet count

  • Low blood pressure

  • Abnormal heart functions

  • Loss of consciousness.

For young children and babies who develop sepsis, seek immediate medical assistance if they have any of the following symptoms:

  • Convulsions or fits

  • Rapid breathing

  • Discoloured skin (very pale or bluish)

  • A rash that doesn't fade

  • Fever or low temperature

  • Not passing urine for several hours

  • Vomiting repeatedly

  • Not feeding

  • Drowsiness or listlessness.

Treatment and prevention

Sepsis is curable if identified and treated quickly as the risk of death from the infection increases with each hour that passes before treatment begins. In most cases, the patient will make a full recovery.

Immediate treatment in hospital is vital and it involves the use of medications including antibiotics and intravenous fluids. Severe sepsis is treated in intensive care and some patients may require additional help for their lungs or kidneys to work (such as intubation or dialysis), or even surgery to remove infected tissue.

Related reading:

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Image credit: RODNAE Productions at Pexels

All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.

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