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Sepsis

6-minute read

Sepsis is a medical emergency and can be fatal if not treated quickly. If you suspect you or someone else has sepsis, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.

Key facts

  • Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that occurs when the body damages its own tissues and organs in response to an infection.
  • Immediate treatment in hospital is vital.
  • Sepsis often needs to be treated in the intensive care unit, where you can be very closely monitored.
  • If you’re unsure whether it's sepsis, seek medical attention as quickly as possible.

What is sepsis?

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that occurs when the body damages its own tissues and organs in response to an infection. Sepsis can lead to septic shock, organ failure and even death if it’s not diagnosed and treated early.

What is the difference between sepsis and septicaemia?

Septicaemia is when bacteria enter the bloodstream and cause blood poisoning. This can trigger sepsis, but sepsis can also come from other infections.

Sepsis is sometimes referred to as septicaemia; however, they are not the same thing.

What are the symptoms of sepsis?

The symptoms of sepsis vary. They can include:

  • fever or low temperature
  • chills
  • uncontrolled shaking
  • rapid breathing
  • rapid heart rate
  • tiredness
  • headache

Other symptoms of sepsis can include:

Sepsis can develop more quickly in young children and babies. Seek urgent medical care if your child has:

  • a seizure
  • rapid breathing
  • other problems with breathing, including gasping and grunting
  • discoloured skin, very pale or bluish
  • a rash or new spots on the skin, or a rash that doesn’t fade when you press it
  • fever OR a very low temperature
  • not passed urine (or has had no wet nappies) for several hours
  • been vomiting repeatedly
  • not been eating, drinking or feeding
  • irritability
  • drowsiness or listlessness

Ask your doctor ‘Could this be sepsis?’ if:

  • you are feeling very unwell
  • you are not getting better from a generalised illness
  • you are quickly getting worse
  • there is any chance of an infection
  • you are more concerned about your child than you normally are when they are sick

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes sepsis?

Sepsis is caused by an abnormal response to infection. Sepsis can start with an infection by bacteria, a virus, fungi or protozoa. The initial infection can be anywhere in your body. It may start in your bladder, abdomen (tummy), chest, or even your skin.

With sepsis, your body's immune reaction to the infection causes an inflammatory response, which makes things worse, not better. This causes your body’s organs to not work properly, which is life threatening.

If sepsis is not treated quickly, it can cause organ failure, septic shock or even death.

People with septic shock have sepsis and very low blood pressure and other problems.

Anyone can get sepsis. People at higher risk include:

  • those with weakened immune systems
  • people aged over 65 years
  • pregnant or recently pregnant people
  • babies and very young children
  • people with illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, AIDS, and kidney or liver disease
  • people who have recently had surgery or another procedure
  • people with cuts, burns, blisters or skin infections

When should I see my doctor?

Sepsis is a medical emergency and can be fatal if not treated quickly. If you suspect you or someone else has sepsis, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.

Immediate treatment in hospital is vital.

It’s important to get to hospital as quickly as possible — the risk of dying from sepsis increases with each hour that passes before treatment begins.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is sepsis diagnosed?

People with sepsis are very unwell. Your doctor will ask about your symptoms (or ask someone who is with you about the symptoms).

Your doctor will do a physical examination, first checking your vital signs (breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and temperature). They will also check your mental state and look for the source of your infection.

Your doctor will organise several blood tests. Other bodily fluids, such as urine (wee) and sputum (mucus coughed up from your airways) might also be tested.

To find the source of the infection, you may also need x-rays and other scans.

How is sepsis treated?

Immediate treatment in hospital is vital. Sepsis often needs to be treated in the intensive care unit, where you can be very closely monitored.

People with sepsis may need help for their lungs or kidneys to work or surgery to help treat the infection.

Treatment includes antibiotics and intravenous fluids (fluids given through a drip into a vein). You may also be given oxygen if needed.

Sometimes antiviral medicines are given if the infection is due to a virus.

Many other medicines may be used to revive someone who has septic shock.

Complications of sepsis

Sepsis can cause:

  • temporary or permanent organ damage
  • organ failure
  • septic shock
  • death

People who have had septic shock may develop gangrene. Gangrene may need to be treated with the amputation of fingers, toes or limbs.

Post-sepsis syndrome is a complication that affects up to half of people who survive sepsis. Symptoms can include:

  • sleep disturbances, including insomnia
  • nightmares, hallucinations, flashbacks and panic attacks
  • muscle and joint pains
  • extreme tiredness
  • trouble concentrating
  • loss of self-confidence

Symptoms of post-sepsis syndrome usually last between 6 and 18 months.

Resources and support

If you’re unsure whether it's sepsis, seek medical attention as quickly as possible.

You can download the app Could this be sepsis? from Sepsis Australia, to check your symptoms.

Sepsis Australia has also put together a guide about life after sepsis, including a list of sepsis support groups.

You can also call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak to, 24 hours, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: September 2022


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