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The link between coronavirus (COVID-19) and sepsis

Monday 25 May 2020

A picture of a heart rate monitor in front of an ICU bed.
Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that requires emergency care.

You may have noticed that we’ve been talking about sepsis a lot over the past year. Sepsis is a life-threatening emergency, and quick treatment can rely on people at home noticing something is wrong and acting on their instincts to get help. This means it’s important that Queenslanders know what sepsis is and what signs to look out for in themselves and others. It’s also important to know that our emergency departments are open, safe and ready to look after Queenslanders, especially in a life-threatening emergency like sepsis.

You might have also heard about sepsis in a different context this year, linked to coronavirus (COVID-19). This is because sepsis is one of the ways that COVID-19 can cause serious illness and death. Below, we’ve explained how COVID-19 can cause sepsis and what Queenslanders can do to protect themselves.

Why does COVID-19 cause sepsis?

Sepsis, which used to be known as septicaemia or blood poisoning, occurs when the body’s response to an infection causes damage to healthy tissues and organs. It’s not actually the infection causing the problem, but the immune system over-responding to the threat and attacking healthy parts of the body.

Sepsis can be caused by any type of infection – viral, fungal, or bacterial – but it most commonly occurs with bacterial infections of the lungs, urinary tract (bladder, urethra, kidneys), abdomen, skin and soft tissues. It can lead to tissue damage, multiple organ failure and death.

Some of the people around the world who have died from COVID-19, have died because they have had sepsis. Once the disease has made them sick, their body has tried to fight off the infection and overreacted, shutting down their organs and killing healthy tissue. Now, when people are in intensive care with COVID-19, their doctors and nurses are on high alert for sepsis developing and causing them to become even more unwell.

What can I do to prevent myself and my family from getting sepsis?

Not all cases of sepsis are preventable. One of the best things Queenslanders can do is to know the signs of sepsis, so if they think they or someone they are caring for might have sepsis, they can get emergency medical help.

Adults with sepsis might experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Fast breathing
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Skin rash or clammy/sweaty skin
  • Weakness or aching muscles
  • Not passing much (or any) urine
  • Feeling very hot or cold, chills or shivering
  • Feeling confused, disoriented, or slurring your speech
  • Feeling very unwell, extreme pain or the ‘worst ever’.

Adults with sepsis might express that they feel like they are dying or that they have never been so sick and are worried about their health.

Symptoms of adult sepsis

Children with sepsis might experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Fast breathing
  • Convulsions or fits
  • A rash that doesn’t fade when pressed
  • Discoloured or blotchy skin, or skin that is very pale or bluish
  • Not passing urine (or no wet nappies) for several hours
  • Vomiting
  • Not feeding or eating
  • A high or very low temperature
  • Sleeping, confused or irritable
  • Pain or discomfort that doesn’t respond to ordinary pain relief like paracetamol.

Symptoms of sepsis in children

If you think you or someone you are caring for might have sepsis, you need to go straight to the nearest emergency department and ask, ‘Could this be sepsis?’. During the COVID-19 pandemic, our hospitals are open, safe and ready to look after Queenslanders.

Preventing infections can stop sepsis

You can also prevent sepsis by protecting yourself against getting infections, because infections can sometimes cause sepsis. When it comes to COVID-19, the best thing you can do is follow guidelines to help stop yourself and others from catching the virus. You should:

  • Wash your hands often and properly
  • Try not to touch your face
  • Stay at least 1.5 metres away from anyone who is sick, coughing or sneezing
  • Stay at home when you’re sick
  • Follow social distancing guidelines by keeping 1.5 metres away from others – think two big steps.

You can find more information about how you can help to stop the spread of COVID-19 on the Queensland Government COVID-19 webpage.

This year, it’s also really important that you get vaccinated against influenza. Like COVID-19, the flu can affect the lungs and lead to pneumonia and further bacterial infections, which are common causes of sepsis. That’s why it’s really important that this year, we try to make sure as few people as possible get sick with the flu or COVID-19, which also reduces the risk of getting sepsis.

You can find more information about getting an influenza vaccine this year here.

More information

What is sepsis?

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

When an everyday accident leads to sepsis – what we can learn from Sadie’s story

Sepsis: how trusting her instincts helped Mel save her baby daughter’s life

The decision that saved Michael’s life from sepsis

How sepsis turned Therese’s run-of-the-mill surgery into a life or death situation

Last updated: 25 May 2020