Sepsis: What you need to know

Chief Nurse, Cromwell Hospital
12 July 2017

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This article is more than three years old. It reflects the best available evidence at the time of publication.

You may have noticed stories in the press over the last year or so about people becoming ill with sepsis; it has become very topical. You may even know someone who has been affected by it.

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition, but it can start out with symptoms similar to those of less dangerous conditions like flu, gastroenteritis or a chest infection.

The UK Sepsis Trust estimates that around 150,000 people in the UK get sepsis every year, and that – sadly – more than 44,000 of them die.

What is sepsis?

Sepsis can happen when you’ve had an infection. Your immune system reacts to the infection in the wrong way, causing your organs to fail.

Some people are more at risk from sepsis, including older people, those with compromised immune systems, and children. But it doesn’t discriminate: people of all ages can be affected. Only recently there was a story in the press about a 38-year-old man who died from sepsis a few days after scratching himself on a nail.

How do I spot sepsis?

It’s said that awareness is the number one cure for sepsis. Being able to spot it as soon as possible is crucial in reducing the harm it causes. Even healthcare professionals are being encouraged to be more aware of it, especially when treating patients who may have an infection.

So how can you recognise sepsis? This can be tricky, because it can present in a number of ways, and some of these can be quite general. For example, someone might just say they feel very unwell. Some of the key things to watch out for are:

  • behaving or thinking differently from usual
  • breathing rapidly
  • having a fast heartbeat
  • not passing urine for a long time
  • having discoloured or blotchy skin

It’s also important to think of factors that increase the risk of sepsis. These include:

  • older age, especially over 65
  • pregnancy
  • recovering from surgery
  • having cuts, burns, blisters, or skin infections
  • alcoholism
  • diabetes
  • a weakened immune system, for example from illnesses such as sickle cell disease, or after treatments such as chemotherapy or steroid medicines
  • having a catheter (thin, flexible tube that drains fluids from your body)

If you know someone falls into these categories, the symptoms explained above may be more likely to indicate sepsis.

What should I do if I think someone has sepsis?

If you’re worried that you, or someone you know, might have sepsis, you should call 111 immediately for further advice.

Even healthy people become unhealthy sometimes. Health insurance can help you get prompt access to the treatment and support you need to help you get back on the road to recovery. Learn more with our useful guide to understanding health insurance

Jackie Burgess
Chief Nurse, Cromwell Hospital

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