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Sepsis: Understanding a Life-Threatening Condition

What is Sepsis?

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that occurs when the body's response to infection harms its own tissues and organs. It can manifest with symptoms such as fever, increased heart rate, elevated breathing rates, and confusion.

Similarities to Other Conditions

Sepsis can mimic flu, gastroenteritis, or chest infections, making it challenging to diagnose. Annually, approximately 245,000 patients develop sepsis in the UK, with a reported mortality rate of around 20% (The Lancet Journal of Respiratory Medicine, 2018).

Risk Factors and Vulnerable Groups

Anyone can develop sepsis, especially after minor infections or injuries, but certain individuals are more vulnerable. Sepsis is a leading cause of direct maternal deaths during UK pregnancies. Vulnerable groups include those with weakened immune systems, hospital patients with severe illnesses, infants, the elderly, and post-surgery patients.

Cause and Severity

Sepsis is often associated with terms like "blood poisoning" or "septicaemia," but it can affect the entire body even without bloodstream bacterial invasion. While viral or fungal infections can cause sepsis, bacterial infections are the most common culprits. Severe sepsis and septic shock are both critical medical emergencies.

Recognizing Sepsis

If you suspect sepsis, seek immediate medical attention. The UK Sepsis Trust offers a helpful mnemonic for identifying sepsis:

  • S - Slurred speech
  • E - Extreme shivering or muscle pain
  • P - Passing no urine in a day
  • S - Severe breathlessness
  • I - Feeling like you might die
  • S - Skin mottled or discoloured

Sepsis Symptoms in Children

If a child displays concerning symptoms such as mottled skin, bluish appearance, lethargy, rapid breathing, non-fading rashes, or seizures, it's crucial to seek emergency medical care immediately.

Symptoms in Older Children and Adults

In older children and adults, sepsis symptoms may include high or low body temperature, chills, rapid heart rate, and more severe symptoms like dizziness, confusion, diarrhea, nausea, muscle pain, breathlessness, decreased urine production, clammy skin, and loss of consciousness.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Sepsis is diagnosed through temperature, heart rate, and breathing measurements. Blood tests and other examinations can determine the infection type, location, and organ involvement. Early-stage sepsis can often be treated at home with antibiotics, but severe cases require hospitalization, with some needing intensive care. Prompt identification and treatment increase the chances of a full recovery.

For more information about sepsis, visit the UK Sepsis Trust website at