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What is sepsis?

Illustration of an ER doctor and four groups of people asking 'Could it be sepsis?'
Sepsis is a medical emergency. More adults die from sepsis than breast, prostate and colorectal cancer combined.

A mosquito bite. A urinary tract infection. The flu. It might seem unlikely, but these conditions share a common trait – all three can potentially lead to sepsis.

In fact, any infection can potentially trigger sepsis, a condition caused by an abnormal response of the body to an infection.

Sepsis a life-threatening illness. In 2017-18, more than 20,000 people were treated for sepsis in Queensland hospitals; over 2,000 lost their lives. For adults who survive sepsis, half will be left with a permanent disability or impaired function. It is the leading cause of death and disability in children.

You might have heard of sepsis, but could you name its possible signs and symptoms? Knowing what to look for can help you seek medical help quickly. Early detection and treatment saves lives.

Here’s what you need to know about sepsis, how to spot the signs and symptoms, and when to ask, ‘Could this be sepsis?’.

What causes sepsis?

Sepsis is also known as septicaemia or blood poisoning. It occurs when the body’s response to an infection causes damage to healthy tissues and organs.

Sepsis can be caused by any type of infection – viral, fungal, or bacterial. 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.

What are the symptoms of sepsis?

There is no single symptom of sepsis. It can initially look like the flu, gastro, or a typical urinary, skin, or chest infection. Symptoms can vary from person to person and are different for adults and children.

You know yourself or your loved one best, and your instincts about their illness can help the medical team in their diagnosis and treatment. It’s important to know what to look for.

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.

Sepsis is an emergency. If you or someone you are caring for experiences any of these symptoms, head straight to the nearest hospital emergency department and ask, ‘Could this be sepsis?’.

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.

Sepsis is a life-threatening emergency, with more than 50 per cent of sepsis-related deaths in children occurring within 24 hours. If a child you are caring for experiences any of these symptoms, head straight to the nearest hospital emergency department and ask, ‘Could this be sepsis?’.

Symptoms of sepsis in children

What to do if you suspect sepsis

Sepsis is an emergency that requires urgent medical intervention. Being aware of the signs and symptoms can help people to receive timely medical treatment.

Illnesses can change, and an infection might lead to sepsis after you have already been to see the doctor. Even if you have seen a doctor for your concerns, if the signs of sepsis arise, or the person is not getting better or is getting sicker, trust your gut feeling. Go to the nearest emergency department and ask your doctor or nurse, ‘Could this be sepsis?’.

Who is at increased risk of developing sepsis?

Anyone can develop sepsis. However, some people are more at risk than others. Those at higher risk include:

  • Infants and children
  • Older adults
  • People of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent
  • People with a weakened immune system or are being treated for cancer
  • People who have just had surgery or given birth
  • People with a wound or injury.

How is sepsis diagnosed and treated?

Sepsis is curable if identified and treated quickly and, in most cases, leads to a full recovery.

If sepsis is suspected, clinicians will run a range of tests to assess vital signs and identify the original infection. The patient may require medications, including antibiotics, and intravenous fluids to combat sepsis and stabilise the body.

Depending on the severity of the case, patients may require other supportive care such as intubation (mechanical assistance with breathing) or dialysis (if the kidneys have been affected). Surgery may also be required to remove infected tissue.

Can sepsis be prevented?

Sepsis can happen after surgery, an illness, or simply by being out and about in the community. It’s not always possible to prevent it. However, the risk of sepsis can be reduced by treating infections appropriately or avoiding them in the first place.

Remember to:

  • Seek and follow medical advice for infections and illnesses
  • Stay up-to-date with vaccinations
  • Keep wounds and cuts clean as they heal
  • Maintain general hygiene, including washing hands.

More information

Sepsis in children – Health conditions directory

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

Australian Sepsis Network

Last updated: 25 September 2019