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Sepsis can take hold fast

September 2017

Heart monitor

There has been a lot of news recently on sepsis...according to the BBC’s Panorama research team; there are over 44,000 deaths every year in the UK from sepsis.

This makes sepsis a major killer...but what is it?

Sepsis is the term for a serious and sometimes life threatening complication that can occur after an infection.

When you get an infection, your immune system usually kicks into action, producing white blood cells which travel to the site where the problem has occurred. These cells destroy the germs causing the infection and usually after a spell all is well.

During this process, various other changes occur in the body to help fight the infection including tissue swelling or inflammation which helps prevent the infection spreading.

However sometimes, perhaps when the infection is particularly strong or the immune system is weak, this infection can spread into the blood and then around to other parts of the body.

Again the body fights this, with inflammation occurring everywhere, and this is when the problems really start. With the immune system in overdrive and widespread inflammation, blood flow can be disrupted and tissues can be damaged. An interruption in blood flow can lead to a dangerous drop in blood pressure and prevent adequate supplies of oxygen reaching the organs and tissues. This can lead to multiple organ failure and death.

So sepsis, while fairly rare, is a very serious complication of what initially might have been a simple infection.

Infections can of course occur anytime and even when patients are still in hospital. Pneumonia, abdominal infection, kidney and bladder infections and bloodstream infection are among the most likely problems to trigger sepsis, but any infection can be a risk.

Symptoms can include a high fever or a drop in temperature (above 101º F or a drop in temperature below 96.8º F); a heart rate of more than 90 beats a minute; a high breathing rate of more than 20 breaths a minute plus a possible or confirmed previous infection.

The UK Sepsis Trust suggest that you should seek medical help urgently if you develop any of the following after an infection. They have put it into an acronym to help people remember….

S - Slurred speech or confusion
E - Extreme shivering or muscle pain
P - Passing no urine (in a day)
S - Severe breathlessness
I - It feels like you’re going to die
S - Skin mottled or discoloured

Much more is known today about sepsis than it was even a few years ago, and speed of treatment after diagnosis is now recognised as being key. The main tests and treatments are recommended to be started within an hour of diagnosis and delays can be dangerous. Treatment includes antibiotics and possibly intravenous fluids and even oxygen if necessary.

Severe sepsis can occur quickly however, and this usually requires admission to an intensive care unit where essential body functions can be supported. Even so, up to four people in every ten admitted with severe sepsis die. 

Sepsis is therefore something we definitely need to be aware of, especially as we are at higher risk as we age.

More information is available at the Sepsis Trust   https://sepsistrust.org


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