What is sepsis and what are the early signs and symptoms to look out for?

A quarter of patients aren't getting treatment for sepsis quickly enough [Photo: Getty]

Patients' lives are being put at risk because of delays in them receiving treatment for sepsis, new research suggests.

According to new research by BBC News a quarter of patients with sepsis have experienced delays in getting treatment.

If sepsis is suspected patients are supposed to be put on an antibiotic drip within an hour.

But the BBC found that there were huge variations between different hospital trusts, with a number failing to quickly treat most of their patients in one hour.

The research team analysed figures from more than 100 hospital trusts, around three quarters of those in England.

The findings indicated that around 75% of patients got treatment within an hour between January and March.

But experts are warning delay in treatment could increase the risk of potentially fatal complications such as organ failure.

READ MORE: Mum saves son from potentially deadly sepsis by spotting early sign

What is sepsis?

According to the the UK Sepsis Trust sepsis is a serious complication of an infection, that without quick treatment can lead to multiple organ failure and death.

”Sepsis the immune system's overreaction to an infection or injury where, instead of fighting an infection, the immune system attacks our body's own organs and tissues,” explains Dr Ron Daniels BEM, CEO of the UK Sepsis Trust.

“If not treated immediately, sepsis can result in organ failure and death. Yet with early diagnosis, it can be treated with antibiotics, and we estimate that better awareness could save thousands of lives every year.”

Latest figures estimate that there are about 250,000 cases every year in the UK, and more than 50,000 deaths, that’s around 5 people in the UK being killed by sepsis every hour.

Around a quarter of all sepsis survivors suffer permanent, life-changing after effects of the condition.

Risk factors of sepsis

According to Dr Diana Gall from www.doctor-4-u.co.uk you may be more at risk of developing sepsis if you have a weak immune system, if you’re already in hospital for a serious illness, if you’ve had recent surgery or an open wound, or if you have a long term health condition.

But though some people are more at risk of others it is important to note that sepsis can affect anyone, regardless of age (in fact, children can be more prone to it than adults), so it’s important to know the signs and symptoms so that you can get treatment as soon as possible.

Patients should be given antibiotics within an hour of suspecting sepsis [Photo: Getty]

What are the symptoms of sepsis?

According to the UK Sepsis Trust sepsis can initially look like flu, gastroenteritis or a chest infection.

But there is no one sign to look out for, and symptoms are often different between adults and children.

Symptoms to look out for in adults according to the NHS:

  • a high temperature or a low body temperature

  • chills and shivering

  • a fast heartbeat

  • problems or changes to your breathing

  • feeling or acting differently from normal – you do not seem your usual self

Symptoms to look out for in children according to the NHS:

  • looks mottled, bluish or pale

  • is very lethargic or difficult to wake

  • feels abnormally cold to touch

  • is breathing very fast

  • has a rash that does not fade when you press it

  • has a fit or convulsion

“During the early stages of sepsis, you might notice that you have a high temperature or low body temperature and chills, as well as noticing a change in your heart rate and breathing and generally feeling ‘out of sorts’,” explains Dr Gall.

“If you know you have an infection or if you’ve recently had surgery or have any wounds, you should keep an eye out for these symptoms and seek medical advice if you think you’re displaying symptoms of sepsis,” she adds.

If left untreated, the condition can be severe, and cause even more unpleasant symptoms such as dizziness, confusion, feeling or being sick, severe muscular pain, breathlessness, pale or mottled skin, and in some cases, unconsciousness.

“You may even notice that you aren’t urinating as much. If you notice any of these, you should go to your nearest emergency department and state that you’re having symptoms of septic shock,” Dr Gall explains.

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How is sepsis treated?

The NHS says that if sepsis is detected early enough and has not affected vital organs yet, it may be possible to treat the infection at home with antibiotics.

But if the condition becomes severe or leads to sepsis shock, most will need to be admitted to hospital, with some requiring treatment in an intensive care unit (ICU)

People with severe sepsis often witness problems with their vital organs, which means they are likely to be very ill and the condition can be fatal.

However, if sepsis is identified and treated quickly enough, in most cases patients will make a full recovery with no lasting problems.

“In many cases, you’ll need to be admitted to hospital for treatment, and for it to be most effective, it’s important that the infection is diagnosed as soon as possible,” explains Dr Gall.

“It can be treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics, though patients with more severe cases might need a blood transfusion, dialysis, or even mechanical ventilation to help them to breathe. This is why it’s so important that sepsis is treated early.”

The UK Sepsis Trust are now calling for more awareness of the signs of sepsis so that treatment can be administered straight away.

“Sepsis affects 250,000 people in the UK every year. 52,000 of those lose their lives to the condition and 79,000 are left with life-altering after-effects,” says Dr Daniels.

“Whenever there are signs of infection (and infection can be caused by anything from a small cut or insect bite to a chest infection or UTI) it's crucial that members of the public seek medical attention urgently and 'Just Ask: "Could it be sepsis?" with every hour that passes before the right antibiotics are administered, risk of death increases,” he explains.