The Disease Nobody Knows About Until it’s Too Late

If you know much about sepsis, chances are the condition has affected your family.

Sepsis has a high mortality and kills 37,000 people a year in the UK, about 1,000 of them kids. So this week I’m parking the levity and using my blog to sum up what you need to know about sepsis. Photo by Jean Scheijen FreeImages.com/Jean ScheijenUnderstand what it is.

Sepsis is when the body responds to severe infection in such a way that it attacks its own organs and tissues. Without treatment, this quickly leads to organ failure and death.

Most people have heard of blood poisoning (septicaemia) which is much the same thing. But doctors now prefer the term sepsis because there isn’t always blood poisoning in this condition.  

Sepsis isn’t exactly a household name – yet. Personally I think ‘sepsis’ sounds weaker than either septicaemia or blood poisoning, but we’re stuck with the term that scientists agree on.

Know the signs.

The symptoms depend on age, but the main point is that there isn’t any one specific sign like, say a swollen jaw with mumps. A child with sepsis can have a high fever, or an abnormally low one. The younger the child, the vaguer the symptoms.

Here are some signs to look out for in children (from the UK Sepsis Trust’s Paediatric Pocket Guide):

symptoms of sepsis in children

And here are some signs to watch out for in adults (from the UK Sepsis Trust’s excellent Symptom Checker card):

symptoms of sepsis in adults

If I could highlight just two consistent points about sepsis, they would be these:

You or your youngster will be more unwell than expected.

Things get rapidly worse, especially in children.

Understand who gets it.

Anyone can develop sepsis from a bacterial infection (or sometimes a virus or fungus). But some are more at risk, like the very young, very old, pregnant women, diabetics, and people on long-term steroids.

The initial infection can be a serious one like meningitis, or seemingly trivial, like a horse-fly bite.

Surgery can be linked with sepsis, especially emergency operations on those in poor health, or with peritonitis or bladder infections.

scalpel

Know what to do.

Sepsis is a medical emergency and needs urgent hospital care. Don’t waste a single moment.

Sepsis isn’t one disease, but rather a syndrome that cuts across almost every medical speciality. The first doctor you see could be a paediatrician, a gynaecologist, an orthopaedic surgeon, or your GP, and sepsis may not feature at the top of their list. That’s why it’s so important for you to mention it. When you see the doctor or nurse, make sure you say, “I’m worried about sepsis.”

Thanks for bearing with me.

Litmann type stethoscope

Here’s a selection of further reading if you’re interested.

The UK Sepsis Trust is a charity founded to save lives and improve outcomes for survivors of sepsis by instigating political change, educating healthcare professionals, raising public awareness and providing support for those affected. For their general factsheet on sepsis, click here

Sepsis Awareness Month: Rory’s Story. One mother’s personal account.

Three and a Half Heartbeats by Amanda Prowse. A novel of love, loss, and hope about a family devastated when their child dies of sepsis. And proceeds go to UK Sepsis Trust.

Plunkett A, Tong J. Sepsis in Children.  BMJ 2015;350:h3017. A detailed medical article from the British Medical Journal.

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