Sepsis is a common and potentially life-threatening condition triggered by an infection.
In sepsis, the body’s immune system goes into overdrive, setting off a series of reactions including widespread inflammation, swelling and blood clotting. This can lead to a significant decrease in blood pressure, which can mean the blood supply to vital organs such as the brain, heart and kidneys is reduced.
If not treated quickly, sepsis can eventually lead to multiple organ failure and death.
Each year in the UK, it is estimated that more than 100,000 people are admitted to hospital with sepsis and around 37,000 people will die as a result of the condition.
Signs and symptoms of sepsis
Early symptoms of sepsis usually develop quickly and can include:
- a high temperature (fever)
- chills and shivering
- a fast heartbeat
- fast breathing
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:
- feeling dizzy or faint
- confusion or disorientation
- nausea and vomiting
- cold, clammy and pale or mottled skin
Read more about the symptoms of sepsis.
When to seek medical advice
See your GP immediately if you have recently had an infection or injury and you have possible early signs of sepsis.
Severe sepsis and septic shock are medical emergencies. If you think that you or someone in your care has one of these conditions, call 999 and ask for an ambulance.
Read more about diagnosing sepsis.
Who's at risk?
Anyone can develop sepsis after an injury or minor infection, although some people are more vulnerable. People most at risk of sepsis include those:
- with a medical condition or receiving medical treatment that weakens their immune system
- who are already in hospital with a serious illness
- who are very young or very old
- who have just had surgery or who have wounds or injuries as a result of an accident
Read more about the causes of sepsis.
How sepsis is treated
If sepsis is detected early and has not yet affected vital organs, it may be possible to treat the infection at home with antibiotics. Most people who have sepsis detected at this stage will make a full recovery.
Some people with severe sepsis and most people with septic shock require admission to an intensive care unit (ICU), where the body’s organs can be supported while the infection is treated.
As a result of problems with vital organs, people with severe sepsis are likely to be very ill and the condition can be fatal. However, if identified and treated quickly, sepsis is treatable and in most cases leads to full recovery with no lasting problems.
Read more about treating sepsis.
Sepsis, septicaemia and blood poisoning
Sepsis is often referred to as either blood poisoning or septicaemia, although it could be argued that both terms are not entirely accurate. Sepsis is not just limited to the blood and can affect the whole body, including the organs.
Septicaemia (another name for blood poisoning) refers to invasion of bacteria into the bloodstream and this occurs as part of sepsis. Sepsis can also be caused by viral or fungal infections, although bacterial infections are by far the most common cause.
Last updated: 24 September 2015
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