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Sepsis

4-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 is a life-threatening condition that occurs when the body damages its own tissues and organs in response to an infection. It can lead to septic shock, organ failure and even death if sepsis is 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.

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 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 anywhere in the body, like in the bladder or abdomen (the gut), or in the chest, or even on the skin. With sepsis, the body's immune reaction to the infection causes a large inflammatory response which makes things worse, not better. This can cause the body’s organs to not work properly and if not treated can cause organ failure, a sudden drop in blood pressure called septic shock or even death.

Anyone can get sepsis, but people with weakened immune systems, the elderly, pregnant or recently pregnant women, 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. 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. Severe sepsis needs to be treated in intensive care. Treatment includes 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

Sepsis can cause temporary or permanent organ damage, organ failure, septic shock and death. People who have had severe septic shock may develop gangrene which needs to be treated with the amputation of fingers, toes or limbs.

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 the Australian Sepsis Network (ASN), to check your symptoms.

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

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

Last reviewed: May 2020


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