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6 min read

What is sepsis?

Medical reviewer: Healthily's medical team
Author: Dr Lauretta Ihonor
Last reviewed: 12/03/2021
Medically reviewed

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What is sepsis?

Sepsis is a serious illness that happens when your body’s immune system launches an abnormally intense reaction to an infection that’s spreading through your whole body. This overreaction causes organ and tissue damage, and can lead to a life-threatening complication known as septic shock.

Sepsis is also known as septicaemia or blood poisoning. It can affect adults and children, but this article is focused on sepsis in adults.

When to see a doctor

Septic shock is more likely to happen if sepsis isn’t treated immediately, so go to an emergency department or call an ambulance if you have any of the symptoms of sepsis listed below.

Sepsis isn't always easy to spot and the symptoms can differ from person to person, but common symptoms in adults include:

  • feeling faint, losing consciousness, collapsing or having trouble standing
  • confusion, change in behaviour, slurred speech or drowsiness
  • being unable to do your normal daily activities, such as getting out of bed, watching television, eating meals
  • not peeing in the past 24 hours
  • blue, pale or blotchy skin, lips or tongue
  • a rash that doesn’t fade when you roll a glass over it
  • breathlessness, difficulty breathing as normal or difficulty speaking in full sentences
  • feeling like you’re ‘about to die’
  • feeling sick or being sick, and being unable to keep any food or fluids down
  • a very high or low temperature
  • feeling hot or cold to the touch
  • extreme shivering or muscle pain

You should also go to the emergency room or call an ambulance if you feel unwell and you’ve had:

  • recent chemotherapy or a weakened immune system
  • trauma, surgery or an invasive procedure in the last 8 weeks
  • swelling, redness or pain around a cut or wound
  • a history of injecting recreational drugs or you have thin tubes, like catheters or IV lines, in your body

What causes sepsis?

Sepsis can be caused by any infection in the body – even a small infection, like a cut – although it’s more often seen when a person has a lung, kidney, skin or gut infection. Anyone can get sepsis, but it’s more likely to happen in people who:

  • are older than 75
  • have conditions that keep them in bed a lot
  • are staying in the hospital or have had recent surgery
  • have thin tubes such as catheters or IVs in their body
  • have a weakened immune system, e.g. from chemotherapy or an organ transplant
  • have diabetes
  • have just had a baby, abortion or miscarriage

Babies (under a year old) are also at increased risk of sepsis, especially if their mother had an infection while pregnant or the baby was born early.

It’s important to remember that sepsis itself isn’t an infection – it’s the body’s response to an infection. This means you can’t catch sepsis from someone else.

How is sepsis diagnosed?

A doctor will usually suspect sepsis based on your symptoms and a physical examination. But you’ll often need tests to check for an infection (and how far it’s spread) and complications.

These tests may include:

  • blood tests – including blood cultures, where a sample of blood is sent to a lab to check for bacteria or fungi that may be causing an infection
  • urine tests – these include testing for signs of infection as well as monitoring how much you pee each hour
  • taking samples from different parts of your body – including samples of your phlegm, stool and spinal fluid, or swabs of any wounds you have. These will be sent to a lab to be tested for germs that may be causing an infection
  • imaging tests – such as X-rays (often of your chest), ultrasound scans and an echocardiogram of your heart

What is the treatment for sepsis?

If you have sepsis, you’ll usually be treated in hospital, with a focus on treating the infection and supporting your body’s functions to prevent complications. This may include treatment with:

  • antibiotics – given directly into your vein (IV)
  • fluids – given directly into your vein
  • medications to treat other symptoms and conditions, e.g. medicine to raise your blood pressure if it’s too low or steroids if you aren’t responding to other treatment
  • blood transfusion (in some cases)

If you have a really bad skin or tissue infection, you may need surgery to remove the infected tissue. And if a doctor suspects a catheter or IV line is causing the infection, they may take it out.

You may also need to stay in an intensive care unit and/or be put on a ventilator (a machine that helps you breathe) if you have a really serious case of sepsis or if you develop complications, like septic shock.

What is septic shock?

Septic shock is a life-threatening complication of sepsis. It happens if a case of sepsis gets so bad your blood pressure falls to a dangerously low level. When this happens, your organs don’t get enough oxygen-rich blood to function normally and this can be fatal if it isn’t corrected quickly.

How to prevent sepsis

The best way to prevent sepsis is to avoid infections, if possible. You can do this by practising good hygiene, like washing your hands often. You can also reduce your risk of infections by staying away from people with spreadable illnesses, like colds and flu.

Getting recommended vaccines can also help you to avoid catching an infection.

But if you have an infection, you can help reduce your chances of getting sepsis by:

  • taking antibiotics if a doctor has given you some to take for the infection. You should take these as instructed and complete the full course, even if you feel better before finishing them
  • cleaning and caring for any cuts or wounds you may have
  • seeing a doctor as soon as possible if an infection isn’t getting better with treatment or if it feels like it’s getting worse

How long does it take to recover from sepsis?

Sepsis is a serious condition and it can take some time to recover from it. Everyone is different, which means it may take you weeks, months or longer to feel completely recovered from sepsis.

Some people develop long-term symptoms after having sepsis. This is known as post-sepsis syndrome and can cause symptoms, including:

  • loss of appetite
  • feeling very weak and tired
  • mood changes
  • trouble sleeping
  • nightmares, flashbacks and/or post traumatic stress disorder
  • getting ill a lot

These symptoms usually get better in time, but they can be hard to cope with. Speak to a doctor for advice and support if you think you may have post-sepsis syndrome.

You also have a higher chance of getting sepsis if you’ve had it before, so it’s important to see a doctor if you develop sepsis symptoms even after you’ve recovered from a previous episode of sepsis.

Key points

  • sepsis is also known as septicaemia or blood poisoning
  • it can be caused by any infection in the body
  • sepsis is a serious illness that requires urgent medical attention
  • treatment for sepsis usually happens in hospital so your body’s functions can be supported, and to prevent complications
  • the best way to prevent sepsis is to avoid infections, if possible
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