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Sepsis (septicaemia, or blood poisoning)

3-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.

What is sepsis?

Sepsis (also known as 'septicaemia' or 'blood poisoning') is a serious blood infection caused by bacteria. It can lead to shock, organ failure and death if it’s not treated quickly.

What are the symptoms of sepsis?

The symptoms of sepsis vary. They can include:

  • fever
  • chills
  • uncontrolled shaking
  • rapid breathing and heart rate
  • tiredness
  • headaches

If sepsis gets worse, symptoms can include:

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

  • a fit
  • rapid breathing
  • discoloured skin, very pale or bluish
  • a rash that doesn’t fade when you press it
  • fever OR very low temperature
  • not passing urine (or no wet nappy) for several hours
  • vomiting repeatedly
  • not feeding
  • drowsiness or listlessness

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

What causes sepsis?

Sepsis can start with infection by bacteria, a virus, fungi or protozoa. The initial infection can be in the bladder, or in the chest, or even on the skin. But when you have sepsis, the infection worsens and spreads through the blood. The body's immune reaction can make things worse, not better, and it can cause a sudden, untreatable drop in blood pressure called septic shock.

Anyone can get sepsis, but people with weakened immune systems, the elderly, the very young, people with illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, AIDS and kidney or liver disease, and people who have had a severe burn are at greater risk.

How is sepsis diagnosed?

A doctor will examine the person with sepsis and will organise blood tests. Other bodily fluids such as urine and sputum might also be tested as well as tests of their urine. The person might also need x-rays and perhaps other scans as well.

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How is sepsis treated?

Immediate treatment in hospital is vital. Usually in intensive care, they will receive antibiotics and intravenous fluids. It’s vital to get to hospital as quickly as possible – the risk of dying from sepsis increases with each hour that passes before treatment begins.

People with sepsis may need help for their lungs or kidneys to work or surgery to remove the infection. Many other medications may be used to revive someone who has gone into septic shock.

Complications of sepsis

Bacteria in the blood can infect other organs, causing inflammation of the:

  • lining of the brain (meningitis)
  • abdomen (peritonitis)
  • inner layer of the heart (endocarditis)
  • joints (septic arthritis)

Sepsis can also lead to septic shock.

Resources and support

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

You can download an app, Could this be sepsis?, to check your symptoms.

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

Last reviewed: May 2020

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