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Sepsis: Life-Threatening Yet Difficult to Spot

Sepsis: Life-Threatening Yet Difficult to Spot

Emma Hammett A qualified nurse, author and first aid trainer with over 30 years’ healthcare and teaching experience Sepsis is responsible for 52,000 deaths in the UK each year. A distressing 250,000 people contract the condition, which can have life changing implications; such as amputations, internal organ failure and brain damage. Why has sepsis been

Emma Hammett A qualified nurse, author and first aid trainer with over 30 years’ healthcare and teaching experience

Sepsis is responsible for 52,000 deaths in the UK each year.
A distressing 250,000 people contract the condition, which can have life
changing implications; such as amputations, internal organ failure and brain

has sepsis been in the news?

early, the outcome from sepsis is good. It is the
delay in treatment that can lead to spiralling of the condition
resulting in multi-organ failure and potential death. The Sepsis Trust claims
that improved national awareness could save as many as 14,000 lives a year.

Sadly, the
early symptoms are often easy to miss and often there is a delay in Emergency
Services, GPs and hospital staff recognising the condition. This delay has
major implications and often the window of opportunity when antibiotics can
treat the sepsis, is missed.

What is sepsis?

Sepsis arises due to the body’s abnormal response to an
infection. The immune system usually works to fight any germs (such as
bacteria, viruses and fungi) and infection in the body. However, for reasons
that are not fully understood, sepsis results in the immune system going into
overdrive and attacking health organs and other tissues.

What damage does it

This inflammation causes injury to the body’s tissues and
organs. The initial, localised infection spreads into the blood stream and is
circulated around the body spreading and increasing the damage. This life-threatening breakdown in circulation can
lead to organs all over the body being affected, including the brain, lungs,
heart, skin and kidneys.

What has septicaemia
got to do with it?

Sepsis is sometimes referred to as septicaemia or blood
poisoning. However, septicaemia is an old, now defunct term
which implied there was something we could measure in the blood which indicated
sepsis – this is not the case.  Sepsis is
the preferred and more accurate term for the condition.

What causes sepsis?

Sepsis can be triggered by an infection
in any part of the body. The most common causes of sepsis are the following;

  1. Pneumonia (or a chest infection),
  2. Urinary infections,
  3. Intra-abdominal infections (such as a burst ulcer
    or hole in the bowel),
  4. Skin infections (an infected cut or bite),
  5. A wound from trauma or surgery,
  6. Soft tissue infections (a leg ulcer for example).

Most cases are caused by common
bacteria which wouldn’t normally induce illness. Trauma is responsible for 2-3%
of reported cases.

Is it linked with meningitis?

Meningitis causes less than 1% of adult
cases of sepsis. However, it is the cause in around 10% of cases in children.

Whilst most cases of meningitis are
viral and therefore not life-threatening (or sepsis-inducing), a minority are
bacterial infections and can lead to sepsis. Both conditions are serious and so
it is important to be able to recognise common early signs and symptoms.

What is sepsis in more detail?

Sepsis is a massive reaction that
damages blood flow all over the body. The immune system releases chemicals causing
tiny blood vessels (capillaries) to leak fluid into the surrounding tissues. This
causes inflammation which can ultimately lead to reduced blood flow to vital
organs and organ damage.

The chemicals  damage the capillary walls, which leak even
more, causing dangerously low blood pressure. Blood clots try to repair the
damage, but many break loose, causing blockages and further impairing blood
flow to tissues.

If the cellular metabolism is damaged
in this way and blood pressure drops to dangerously low levels, the amount of
blood and oxygen reaching the body’s organs is reduced and prevents them
functioning properly. This is known as septic shock.

What needs to be improved nationally?

The Royal
College of Nursing held a conference in May 2019 in which they stressed the
need for an urgent dissemination of a national Paediatric Early Warning Score
to improve identification of the signs of sepsis in children. Currently,
between 1000 and 4000 children die each year from the condition. An adult
symptoms checklist is already used by the NHS, but trusts use individual
systems for children which results in an inconsistent and unreliable approach

A symptoms checklist
for adults already exists but NHS trusts often use their own systems for
children. The children’s checklist would help medics spot when a youngster is
deteriorating through:

  1. Checking temperature,
  2. Heart rate,
  3. Respiration rate,
  4. Other signs, such as urination, skin colour and rash.

The Sepsis Trust claim
that patients presenting early being around half as likely to die than those presenting late. This emphasises
the importance of awareness.

The condition
deteriorates in children far quicker, and therefore it is particularly
important for those in childcaring positions to be fully informed of the signs
and symptoms.

What would I feel like if I had sepsis?

  1. Flu-like symptoms are common,
  2. Chest infection or gastroenteritis type symptoms,
  3. Feverish and shivering – although sepsis can cause an abnormally
    high or low temperature.
  4. Rapid heartbeat,
  5. Quick breathing
  6. Feeling extremely unwell.

In more extreme cases,
you may experience:

  • Dizziness,
  • Feel faint,
  • Disorientation and confusion,
  • Nausea and vomiting,
  • Diarrhoea,
  • Cold, clammy, pale or mottled skin.


  1. Fast breathing,
  2. Lethargic behaviour and fatigue,
  3. Mottled, bluish or pale skin,
  4. Fits or convulsions,
  5. Failure to pass urine,
  6. A rash that doesn’t fade when
    pressed – NEVER wait for a rash, it is often a very late sign and may not show
    at all.

Any baby or child under 5 years old who is not
feeding, vomiting repeatedly or hasn’t had a wee or wet nappy for 12 hours,
might have sepsis.

do I need to remember?

If you think you have these symptoms, or feel that
something isn’t right, seek urgent medical advice (e.g. call NHS 111 or go into
hospital). It is vital that you trust your instincts and get help to fight the
infection as fast as possible.

Written by Emma
Hammett for First Aid for Life

Award-winning first
aid training tailored to your needs – Please visit our site and learn more
about our practical and online courses. It is vital to keep your skills current
and refreshed.

It is strongly advised
that you attend a fully regulated Practical or Online First Aid course to understand what to
do in a medical emergency. Please visit https://firstaidforlife.org.uk or call 0208 675
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First Aid for Life is
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our venue or yours.

First Aid for life
provides this information for guidance and it is not in any way a substitute
for medical advice. First Aid for Life is not responsible or liable for any
diagnosis made, or actions taken based on this information.

Emma Hammett

Emma Hammett is a qualified nurse, author and first aid trainer with over 30 years’ healthcare and teaching experience.

Emma is the Founder of three multi-award-winning businesses; First Aid for Life, Onlinefirstaid.com, First Aid for Pets and her social cause StaySafe.support. She has published multiple books and is an acknowledged first aid expert and authority on accident prevention, health and first aid. Emma writes for numerous online and print publications and regularly features in the press, on the radio and on TV.

She is the first aid expert for the British Dental Journal, British Journal of School Nursing, the Mail online and Talk Radio with Eamonn Holmes. She is a member of the Guild of Health Writers and Guild of Nurses.


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