What is sepsis?
Most of the time your body’s immune system can fight off infection either on its own or with the help of treatment. But in some less common cases, your body might have an unusually strong reaction to an infection – this is called sepsis. Sepsis can develop rapidly , and if it progresses without treatment, one or several organs may start to fail, and blood pressure drop, which can be life-threatening.
Anyone can develop sepsis, but the elderly and those with a serious illness or weakened immune system are most vulnerable.
What are the symptoms of sepsis?
Sepsis can have lots of different symptoms, making it hard to recognise. An accelerated pulse, chills and rapid breathing are key warning signs. Body temperature may be high, normal or even unusually low. Many people also feel muscle aches and pains , and some can become confused, feel faint or pass out.
Common symptoms of sepsis include:
High pulse rate, and in severe cases heart palpitations
Low blood pressure
Chills and fever
Confusion and disorientation (more common in the elderly)
Nausea and vomiting
Not needing to pee for an extended amount of time
The more of these symptoms someone has, the greater the chance they have sepsis. If sepsis escalates to septic shock, a drop in blood pressure causes poor blood circulation, leading to pale, sweaty skin and cold hands and feet.
Sepsis in children
Generally, sepsis is more likely to occur in babies under the age of 1, those who were born prematurely, those with weakened immune systems or children who have not had their routine childhood vaccinations. Sepsis symptoms in children are mostly the same as in adults, but you should also watch for small blue or red rashes or blotches that don’t turn pale when pressed. Sepsis can also be linked to meningitis – in these cases a headache and stiff neck are common symptoms.
What causes sepsis?
Sepsis is usually caused by a bacterial infection, but any kind of infection – such as viruses which lead to influenza (flu) or covid-19 – can lead to it. Your immune system defends your body against infection by releasing proteins and chemicals into your bloodstream to fight it off. But if this process gets out of control, the body’s blood vessels begin to leak fluid, leading to lowered blood pressure. The impaired blood flow means the body’s organs don’t receive enough oxygen, leading to organ failure, which can be fatal.
Any infection can lead to sepsis, but the most common sources are pneumonia, urinary tract infection, or abdominal infection like appendicitis. Infections affecting the brain (like meningitis) or skin (cellulitis) may also lead to sepsis.
Sepsis is also more likely in patients where bacteria can get into the body via wounds, catheters or prosthetics, and is more common in people who’ve had recent surgery or a protracted stay in hospital. Bacteria that are resistant to certain antibiotics can be harder to treat effectively, making sepsis more likely.
Sepsis and septic shock are life-threatening conditions that require emergency treatment. Suspected sepsis requires immediate medical examination, and is diagnosed via clinical findings such as accelerated heart rate or breathing rate, alongside blood tests. Sometimes additional tests such as X-rays, urine or stool tests, wound swabs, or imaging such as ultrasound or CT scans are also used to confirm the diagnosis.
Sepsis treatment may include fluids and antibiotics, often given through the vein directly into the blood. Many people may need help with breathing or additional oxygen, blood pressure, circulation and their kidney function. Those with severe sepsis or septic shock may require intensive care treatment.
When should I seek medical help?
If you or someone near you shows signs of sepsis, go to A&E, or call 999 or 112 and ask for an ambulance.
- Reviewed by:
- Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi