Since the time of Pericles

Prevent it. Spot it. Treat it – beat it.

The history of sepsis stretches back to ancient Greece - the word sepsis comes from the Greek word "sepo", meaning (rather nastily), "I rot" and has its first use in a medical context in Homer’s poetry - and it remains a serious condition that is difficult to treat today. On World Sepsis Day, we look at this silent killer.

Every year, 27-30 million people across the world develop sepsis and of those, 7-9 million people die from it – that’s one death every 3.5 seconds.

In the UK, there are some 250,000 cases of sepsis a year and at least 46,000 of those die as a result. Survivors may face life-long consequences - around 20% of sepsis survivors live with cognitive and/or physical impairments.

What is sepsis?

Sepsis (also known as blood poisoning) is the immune system’s overreaction to an infection or injury. Normally our immune system fights infection – but sometimes, for reasons we don’t yet understand, it attacks our body’s own organs and tissues. If not treated immediately, sepsis can result in organ failure and death. Yet with early diagnosis, it can be treated with antibiotics.

Sepsis is a serious complication of an infection. Without quick treatment, sepsis can lead to multiple organ failure and death.

How to spot sepsis in adults

Seek medical help urgently if you (or another adult) develop any of these signs:

  • Slurred speech or confusion
  • Extreme shivering or muscle pain
  • Passing no urine (in a day)
  • Severe breathlessness
  • It feels like you’re going to die
  • Skin mottled or discoloured.

Many of the symptoms of sepsis are also associated with meningitis. The first symptoms of meningitis are often fever, vomiting, headache and feeling unwell.

In some cases, symptoms of more severe sepsis or septic shock (when your blood pressure drops to a dangerously low level) develop soon after.

Symptoms for children/babies may be very different.

What causes sepsis?

As mentioned, sepsis is a condition caused by your body’s immune system responding abnormally to an infection, which can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death. The infection can start anywhere in your body; it may be only in one part, or it may be widespread. Your immune system usually works to fight any germs (bacteria, viruses, fungi), or to prevent infection. However, sometimes the immune system goes into overdrive and starts to attack our organs and other tissues.

It can happen as a response to any injury or infection, anywhere in the body. It can result from:

  • A chest infection causing pneumonia
  • A urine infection in the bladder
  • A problem in the abdomen, such as a burst ulcer or a hole in the bowel
  • An infected cut or bite
  • A wound from trauma or surgery
  • A leg ulcer or cellulitis.

Sepsis can be caused by a huge variety of different germs, like streptococcus, e-coli, MRSA or C diff. Most cases are caused by common bacteria, which normally don’t make us ill.

When to seek help

  • 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.

Will I get better?

Some people make a full recovery fairly quickly. The amount of time it takes to fully recover from sepsis varies. Some people experience long-term physical and/or psychological problems during their recovery period, such as:

  • Feeling lethargic or excessively tired
  • Muscle weakness
  • Swollen limbs or joint pain
  • Chest pain or breathlessness.

These long-term problems are known as post-sepsis syndrome. Not everyone experiences these problems.

About World Sepsis Day

World Sepsis Day (13th September 2018) is an initiative of the Global Sepsis Alliance and its founding members, all of which are non-profit organisations. One of their goals is to reduce the incidence of sepsis by 20% and the mortality rate by 10% by 2020. The slogan this year is "Prevent it. Spot it. Treat it – beat it".

Read more about sepsis in the UK.

Find out more

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