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Would you know if your child had sepsis?

A photo of Anita Douglas and her husband, son and daughter Lily, sitting on a beach smiling.
Anita had a gut feeling that something was wrong with her daughter Lily, who ended up being diagnosed with sepsis.

Queensland mum Anita Douglas knew something wasn’t right with her daughter Lily when the 18 month old started to experience worsening flu-like symptoms. Two hospital visits later, the little girl was diagnosed with sepsis, a life-threatening condition.

Sepsis, commonly known as septicaemia or blood poisoning, is a life-threatening condition. Caused by the body’s over-response to an infection, which produces widespread inflammation across the body rather than just at the infection site, sepsis can damage tissue and organs, leading to shock, organ failure and death.

This sounds grim, and the stats do too: every year over 500 Australian and New Zealand children are put on life support as a result of sepsis. Some sepsis cases are preventable by vaccinations and timely treatment of infections. Sadly, despite optimal care, up to 50 children die each year in Australia and New Zealand because of sepsis.

Timely treatment is one of the most important factors when a child becomes septic. Knowing the signs of sepsis means you can get help quickly if a child or someone you are caring for becomes ill.

Signs of sepsis in children

The following signs are more commonly seen in sepsis and should prompt seeking immediate medical attention:

  • convulsions or fits
  • rapid breathing
  • discoloured or blotchy skin, or skin that is very pale or bluish
  • a rash that doesn’t fade when pressed
  • a high or very low temperature
  • not passing urine (or no wet nappies) for several hours
  • vomiting
  • not feeding or eating
  • sleeping, confused or irritable
  • pain or discomfort that doesn’t respond to ordinary pain relief like paracetamol

Anita Douglas had a “gut feeling” that something was very wrong with her daughter, and her emergency doctor, Dr Christa Bell, said that Anita’s recognition of Lily’s deteriorating condition was a key factor in her survival.

If your child has any kind of infection and has develop any symptoms of sepsis, seek medical help immediately. Don’t wait overnight – see an after-hours doctor if your regular GP is closed. If your child is very ill, go to the emergency department. Explain that your child has an infection and you think it’s getting worse and could be sepsis.

Sepsis can be treated with antibiotics, and testing can be done to identify the appropriate antibiotics for the infection.

A photo of Lily Douglas as a toddler.

Preventing sepsis

Sepsis develops from an infection in the body, often in the blood, lungs, urinary tract, skin or abdomen, though any infection can lead to sepsis. It can result from an infection picked up in the community, as well as from an infection acquired in the hospital, and can develop both in children that were previously fully healthy, as well as in children with health issues requiring hospital care. In Lily’s case, a common mild viral infection preceded sepsis, which is often seen.

Treating or preventing infections, can help stop sepsis from developing. Treat cuts and scrapes on the skin with antiseptic and cover with a protective dressing. Urinary tract infections (often called UTIs), should be seen to by a GP for proper treatment. Receiving a yearly influenza vaccination can help prevent infections that come about from getting the flu, including conditions like pneumonia.

Sepsis can develop after surgery or medical treatments, which is why organisations like the Australian Sepsis Network deliver training and forums for health professionals about recognising and preventing sepsis. If your child is in hospital or medical care, you can help prevent sepsis infection by ensuring everyone who comes into their room washes their hands thoroughly before interacting with your child.

Last updated: 11 June 2019