What are the symptoms and how can we avoid it?
Sepsis is often referred to as either blood poisoning or septicaemia, although it could be argued that both terms are not entirely accurate. Source: NHS England and Age UK Bedfordshire
Sepsis is not just limited to the blood and can affect the whole body, including the organs. Sepsis is a life-threatening illness caused by the body overreacting to an infection.
The body’s immune system goes into overdrive, setting off a series of reactions that can lead to widespread inflammation (swelling) and blood clotting.
Symptoms usually develop quickly and include:
• a fever or high temperature over 38°C (100.4°F)
• a fast heartbeat
• fast breathing
In severe cases you may notice:
• you feel dizzy when you stand up
• confusion or disorientation
• nausea and vomiting
although anybody can develop sepsis from a minor infection, some people are more vulnerable.
Such as 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
Stages of Sepsis
Sepsis develops in three stages, described below.
1. Uncomplicated sepsis is caused by infections, such as flu or dental abscesses. It is very common and does not usually require hospital treatment.
2. Severe sepsis occurs when the body’s response to infection has started to interfere with the function of vital organs, such as the heart, kidneys, lungs or liver.
3. Septic shock occurs in severe cases of sepsis, when your blood pressure drops to a dangerously low level, preventing your vital organs from receiving enough oxygenated blood. If it is not treated, sepsis can progress from uncomplicated sepsis to septic shock and can eventually lead to multiple organ failure and death.
If you think you have sepsis, it is important to get it diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible. Contact your GP immediately or visit the A&E department of your local hospital.
If you think that you or someone in your care has severe sepsis or septic shock, phone 999 and ask for an ambulance.
Severe sepsis and septic shock are considered medical emergencies and normally require admission to an intensive care unit, where the body’s organs can be supported while the infection is treated.
Because of problems with vital organs, people with severe sepsis are likely to be very ill, and approximately 30-50% will die as a result of the condition.
It is estimated that there are over 30,000 cases of severe sepsis in the UK every year, and the number seems to be rising. This means that around 10,000 to 15,000 people die as a result of contracting severe sepsis.
Help to avoid becoming part of these statistics.
Remember the early signs: high temperature, fast breathing, a quickened heart rate and chills. If you have any or all of these symptoms phone your doctor. Don’t wait! Sadly, too many people are no longer with us because they did not want to bother their GP. Be a bother – stay alive.
Sepsis can be triggered by an infection in any part of the body. The most common sites of infection leading to sepsis are the lungs, urinary tract, abdomen and pelvis.
Sources of Infection
Types of infection associated with sepsis include:
• lung infection (pneumonia)
• flu (influenza)
• infection of the lining of the digestive system (peritonitis)
• an infection of the bladder, urethra or kidneys (urinary tract infection)
• skin infections, such as cellulitis, often caused when an intravenous drip or catheter has been inserted into the body through the skin
• post-surgical (after surgery) infections
• infections of the nervous system, such as meningitisor encephalitis
In approximately one in five cases, the infection and source of sepsis cannot be detected.
What Causes the Symptoms of Sepsis?
Usually, your immune system will keep the infection limited to one place (known as a localised infection). Your body will produce white blood cells, which travel to the site of the infection to destroy the germs causing infection. A series of biological processes occur, such as tissue swelling, which helps fight the infection and prevents it spreading. This process is known as inflammation.
If your immune system is weakened or an infection is particularly severe, it can spread through the blood into other parts of the body. This causes the immune system to go into overdrive, and the process of inflammation affects the entire body.
This can cause more problems than the initial infection, as widespread inflammation damages tissue and interferes with the flow of blood, leading to a dangerous drop in blood pressure, which stops oxygen reaching your organs and tissue.
People at Risk
Everybody is potentially at risk of developing sepsis from minor infections, such as flu.
However, some people are more vulnerable, including people who:
• have a medical condition, such as HIV or leukaemia, that weakens their immune system
• are receiving medical treatment, such as chemotherapy, that weakens their immune system
• are very young or very old
• have just had surgery, or have wounds or injuries as a result of an accident
• are on mechanical ventilation
• with drips or catheters attached to their skin
• are genetically prone to infection
Sepsis is a particular risk for people already in hospital due to another serious illness. Despite the best efforts of doctors and nurses, secondary infections acquired in hospital are always a potential risk.
Hospital-acquired bacterial infections, such as MRSA, tend to be more serious as the bacteria causing the infection have often developed a resistance to antibiotics.
In the case of suspected sepsis, it is important to get a diagnosis as soon as possible so that appropriate treatment can be given. This can help stop the progress of sepsis and any long-term damage to the body.
If your sepsis is detected early enough and has not affected organ or tissue function (uncomplicated sepsis), it may be possible to treat the condition at home. You will be prescribed a course of antibiotic tablets.
If the sepsis is severe, or you develop septic shock, you will need emergency hospital treatment, usually in an care unit (ICU). ICUs are able to support any affected body function, such as breathing or blood circulation, while the medical staff focus on treating the infection.
Severe sepsis is treated with intravenous antibiotics (given directly into a vein). There will not usually be time to wait until a specific type of infection has been identified, so ‘broad-spectrum’ antibiotics will initially be given. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are designed to work against a wide range of known infectious bacteria, and can also treat some fungal infections.
Once a specific bacterium has been identified, a more ‘focused’ antibiotic can be used. This has the advantage of reducing the chance of the bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics.
You can help to protect yourself from getting sepsis by maintaining good personal hygiene habits, such as washing your hands regularly (not just after using the toilet), avoiding putting your hands and fingers in your mouth. Especially avoiding nail biting and nibbling the skin around your nails. Treat all cuts with an antiseptic and keep a close eye on their progress. Don’t try and go it alone. If in any doubt contact your GP or A & E.