Health A to Z
Sepsis is a rare but serious complication of an infection.
Without quick treatment, sepsis can lead to multiple organ failure and death.
Read on or go straight to:
If your child has any of the symptoms listed below, is getting worse or is sicker than you'd expect (even if their temperature falls), trust your instincts and seek medical advice urgently from NHS 111.
Eating and drinking
Activity and body
If your child has any of these symptoms, is getting worse or is sicker than you'd expect (even if their temperature falls), trust your instincts and seek medical advice urgently from NHS 111.
Early symptoms of sepsis may include:
In some cases, symptoms of more severe sepsis or septic shock (when your blood pressure drops to a dangerously low level) develop soon after.
These can include:
Seek medical advice urgently from NHS 111 if you've recently had an infection or injury and you have possible early signs of sepsis.
If sepsis is suspected, you'll usually be referred to hospital for further diagnosis and treatment.
Severe sepsis and septic shock are medical emergencies. If you think you or someone in your care has one of these conditions, go straight to A&E or call 999.
Sepsis is often diagnosed based on simple measurements such as your temperature, heart rate and breathing rate. You may need to give a blood test.
Other tests can help determine the type of infection, where it's located and which body functions have been affected. These include:
If sepsis is detected early and hasn't affected vital organs yet, it may be possible to treat the infection at home with antibiotics. Most people who have sepsis detected at this stage make a full recovery.
Almost all people with severe sepsis and septic shock require admission to hospital. Some people may require admission to an intensive care unit (ICU).
Because of problems with vital organs, people with severe sepsis are likely to be very ill and the condition can be fatal.
However, sepsis is treatable if it is identified and treated quickly, and in most cases leads to a full recovery with no lasting problems.
Read more about treating sepsis.
Some people make a full recovery fairly quickly. The amount of time it takes to fully recover from sepsis varies, depending on:
Some people experience long-term physical and/or psychological problems during their recovery period, such as:
These long-term problems are known as post-sepsis syndrome. Not everyone experiences these problems.
Read more about recovering from sepsis on the UK Sepsis Trust website.
There are around 123,000 cases of sepsis a year in England. Around 37,000 people die every year as a result of the condition.
Anyone can develop sepsis after an injury or minor infection, although some people are more vulnerable.
People most at risk of sepsis include those:
Read more about the causes of sepsis.
Sepsis can be triggered by an infection in any part of the body. The most common sites of infection leading to sepsis are the lungs, urinary tract, tummy (abdomen) and pelvis.
Sepsis may develop when you're already in hospital. For example, you're more likely to develop sepsis if:
Types of infection associated with sepsis include:
Sometimes the specific infection and source of sepsis can't be identified.
Usually, your immune system keeps an infection limited to one place. This is known as a localised infection.
Your body produces white blood cells, which travel to the site of the infection to destroy the germs causing infection.
A series of biological processes occur, such as tissue swelling, which helps fight the infection and prevents it spreading. This process is known as inflammation.
If your immune system is weak or an infection is particularly severe, it can quickly spread through the blood into other parts of the body. This causes the immune system to go into overdrive, and the inflammation affects the entire body.
This can cause more problems than the initial infection, as widespread inflammation damages tissue and interferes with blood flow.
The interruption in blood flow leads to a dangerous drop in blood pressure, which stops oxygen reaching your organs and tissues.
Everybody is potentially at risk of developing sepsis from minor infections. However, some people are more vulnerable, including people who:
Sepsis is a particular risk for people already in hospital because of another serious illness.
Treatment for sepsis varies, depending on the site and cause of the initial infection, the organs affected and the extent of any damage.
You'll usually be referred to hospital for diagnosis and treatment if you have possible early signs of sepsis. Severe sepsis and septic shock are medical emergencies.
Management of sepsis after admission to hospital usually involves three treatments and three tests, known as the "sepsis six". These should be initiated by the medical team within an hour of diagnosis.
These treatments are described in more detail below.
Tests will include:
You'll need emergency hospital treatment and may require admission to an intensive care unit (ICU) if:
ICUs are able to support any affected body functions, such as breathing or blood circulation, while the medical staff focus on treating the infection.
Because of problems with vital organs, people with severe sepsis are likely to be very ill. Up to 4 in every 10 people with the condition will die.
Septic shock is even more serious, with an estimated 6 in every 10 cases proving fatal.
However, sepsis is treatable if it is identified and treated quickly, and in most cases leads to full recovery with no lasting problems.
The main treatment for sepsis, severe sepsis or septic shock is antibiotics.
If you have severe sepsis and septic shock, antibiotics will be given directly into a vein (intravenously).
Ideally, antibiotic treatment should start within an hour of diagnosis to reduce the risk of serious complications or death.
Intravenous antibiotics are usually replaced by tablets after two to four days. You may have to take them for 7 to 10 days or longer, depending on the severity of your condition.
There won't usually be time to wait until a specific type of infection has been identified, so broad-spectrum antibiotics are given first.
These are designed to work against a wide range of known infectious bacteria and usually cure most common infections.
Once a specific bacterium has been identified, a more focused antibiotic can be used.
If the sepsis is caused by a virus, antibiotics won't work. Antibiotics are usually given anyway because it would be too dangerous to delay treatment until tests confirm the specific cause.
With a viral infection, you'll need to wait until your immune system starts to tackle the infection, although antiviral medication may be given in some cases.
If you have sepsis, your body needs increased amounts of fluid to prevent dehydration and kidney failure.
You'll usually be given fluids intravenously during the first 24 to 48 hours after admission if you have severe sepsis or septic shock.
It's important that the doctors know how much urine your kidneys are making when you have sepsis so they can spot signs of kidney failure.
If you're admitted with severe sepsis or septic shock, you'll usually have a catheter inserted into your bladder to monitor your urine output.
Your body's oxygen demand goes up if you have sepsis.
If you're admitted to hospital with sepsis and the level of oxygen in your blood is low, you'll usually be given oxygen. This is either given through a mask or tubes in your nostrils.
If a source of the infection can be identified, such as an abscess or infected wound, this will also need to be treated.
For example, any pus may need to be drained away or, in more serious cases, surgery may be needed to remove the infected tissue and repair any damage.
Medications called vasopressors are used if you have low blood pressure caused by sepsis.
Vasopressors are normally given intravenously while you're in an ICU. Extra fluids may also be given intravenously to help increase blood pressure.
You may also require additional treatments, such as:
These treatments are mostly used in ICUs.