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Last updated: 25.08.17

What is Sepsis and Septicaemia? (Symptoms and Treating a Blood Infection)

Sepsis (sometimes known as a blood infection or septicaemia) is a serious medical condition, and arises as the result of infection. It can in some cases lead to organ failure, and is life threatening. In this article, we’re going to look at how it happens, who is at risk, and how it is treated.

Important: If you are in any doubt as to whether someone is suffering from the early stages of sepsis, then you should call NHS 111 and seek professional advice immediately. In cases of severe sepsis, or septic shock, then the situation is an emergency, and you should go to your local A&E department, or call 999. For more information about septic shock, click here to read our article on the subject.

What is Sepsis and Septicaemia?

The words sepsis and septicemia are sometimes confused. Sepsis is the more commonly encountered, and this refers to the condition itself. Septicaemia is considered outdated by some institutions, and refers more specifically to the bacteria that have caused the sepsis.

In short, sepsis is when the body has a severe immune response to a form of infection, which begins to damage the person’s tissue and organs. The immune system fails to contain the infection to a particular site, and immune responses such as inflammation spread throughout the body, with the potential to cause significant damage. Numerous types of infection can be the trigger, from urinary tract infections to appendicitis.

What are the Symptoms of Sepsis?

Sepsis has varying symptoms, which may manifest in some patients and not others. In addition, they can vary between age groups.

Children Under 5

In children under five, sepsis can be extremely serious. Initial sepsis symptoms can include the following. If in any doubt, seek further advice from NHS 111.

  • A high temperature of over 38 degrees celsius, or a low one of under 36
  • Difficult or irregular breathing
  • No urination for a long period of time
  • Disinterest in anything, irritability or confusion
  • No drinking for more than 8 hours
  • Particularly green or black vomit, or vomit with blood present
  • Swelling of the soft spot on a baby’s head

The following sepsis signs are more severe – if a child presents any of these, then you should seek emergency medical help immediately:

  • Is experiencing a fit or seizure
  • Feels particularly cold to the touch
  • Is breathing rapidly
  • Is pale or an unusual or mottled colour, including blue
  • Has a rash that does not whiten upon being pressed

Adults and Older Children

In adults and children over five, the most commonly encountered symptoms of early sepsis include the following:

  • A particularly high or low body temperature
  • Increased heart rate
  • Rapid breathing

Seek advice from NHS 111 if you or anyone else suspects sepsis as a result of the above. The below blood infection symptoms can be present for more severe cases of sepsis, or even septic shock. If you experience these yourself, or note these symptoms in another person, then call 999 immediately.

  • Dizziness, feeling faint or even falling unconscious
  • Confusion, disorientation, and slurred speech
  • Vomiting and diarrhoea
  • Severe bodily and muscle pain
  • Lack of urination
  • Mottled, or cold and clammy skin
  • Difficulty breathing or breathlessness

Who is Most at Risk?

As with many severe conditions, certain groups are significantly more at risk of sepsis than others. They are also more at risk of developing severe complications. These groups include the following:

  • Those who have a pre-existing medical condition that weakens their immune system, such as HIV
  • The young and elderly
  • Those in hospital recovering from surgery, with drips or catheters, or on mechanical ventilation
  • People with serious wounds as the result of an accident
  • Pregnant women

How is Sepsis Treated?

Sepsis treatment can vary significantly depending on the person’s medical conditions, the seriousness of the sepsis, and which organs have been affected.

In general, the primary course of action will be to stabilise the patient, mitigate the effects of the immune response where possible, and give them a course of antibiotics to destroy the infection itself. These antibiotics will most likely be given intravenously, and may later be given orally as the situation improves. Note that if the infection is viral in nature, antibiotics will have no effect, and other medication will be administered as part of sepsis management.

Severe sepsis and septic shock have a high mortality rate, which means that emergency care is required. Patients will generally be admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU), where they are likely to receive intravenous fluids, oxygen, and potentially other life supporting measures.

To find out more about sepsis, how it occurs, and how it can be treated, our course - The Safe Management of Sepsis - may be of significant use. To find out more about this Virtual College course, please click here.

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