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Sepsis symptoms: What causes sepsis? How to prevent the deadly condition

Sepsis: Dr Chris reveals how to reduce risk of infection

About 37,000 deaths every year in England are associated with sepsis, and nearly 123,000 people in England develop it every year. Sepsis is treated as a medical emergency, so knowing the risks and being able to spot the symptoms could save a life. What causes sepsis and what are the symptoms?

What causes sepsis?

Sepsis is the body’s extreme response to an infection- bacterial, viral, or fungal.

Nearly any infection can lead to sepsis, but adults aged 65 and over, people with weak immune systems, people with chronic medical conditions, and children younger than one are at higher risk.

The most likely infections to lead to sepsis are things like pneumonia, infection of the digestive system, kidney, bladder, or bloodstream.

Whether the infection is in your skin, lungs or somewhere else in your body, it triggers sepsis if it isn’t stopped.

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The chemicals in the immune system are released into the bloodstream to fight the infection.

This causes inflammation throughout the entire body instead, and the immune system starts to damage your body’s tissues and organs.

Sepsis can develop into severe sepsis or septic shock if it isn’t treated in hospital immediately.

Septic shock can cause your organs to fail and this is life-threatening.

Sepsis symptoms

Sepsis can be hard to spot, but you should always call 999 or go to A&E if you think you or someone else has sepsis.

The symptoms can be vague and much like other conditions such as flu or chest infection.

Signs and symptoms include:

  • High heart rate or low blood pressure
  • Probable or confirmed infection
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Change in mental status
  • Extreme pain or discomfort
  • Fever, shivering, or feeling very cold
  • Shortness of breath
  • Clammy or sweaty skin

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To be diagnosed with sepsis, you need to have at least two of the following:

  • A fever above 35 degrees Celsius or temperature below 36 degrees Celsius
  • A heart rate higher than 90 beats per minute
  • A breathing rate higher than 20 breaths per minute
  • A probable or confirmed infection

You should call 999 or go to A&E if an adult or older child has any of the following symptoms:

  • acting confused, slurred speech or not making sense
  • blue, pale or blotchy skin, lips or tongue
  • a rash that does not fade when you roll a glass over it, the same as meningitis
  • difficulty breathing, breathlessness or breathing very fast

If a baby or young child has sepsis, you’ll need to look for different signs.

You must call 999 or go to A&E if they have any of the following symptoms:

  • blue, pale or blotchy skin, lips or tongue
  • a rash that does not fade when you roll a glass over it, the same as meningitis
  • difficulty breathing (you may notice grunting noises or their stomach sucking under their ribcage), breathlessness or breathing very fast
  • a weak, high-pitched cry that’s not like their normal cry
  • not responding like they normally do, or not interested in feeding or normal activities
  • being sleepier than normal or difficult to wake

How to prevent

Sometimes it isn’t possible to prevent sepsis, but normally there are things you can do to prevent infections that can lead to sepsis.

The NHS website advises keeping up to date with vaccines and taking all prescribed antibiotics and medications, even if you feel better.

Make sure all wounds are cleaned and cared for, and wash your hands regularly every day.

Teach your children to wash their hands properly and encourage them to do so regularly.

Never ignore the signs of sepsis, trust your instincts if you think you or someone you care for has it.

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