Sepsis is the number one cause of preventable death in the world. It is an indiscriminate, deadly disease that can kill a healthy adult in a matter of hours. And that’s despite all the advances in vaccines, antibiotics and intensive care. It is one of the least well recognised diseases which can be hard to diagnose.
Put simply, sepsis arises when your body’s response to an infection spirals rapidly out of control, injuring its own tissues and organs. Even with modern intensive medical care, sepsis can quickly lead to shock, multiple organ failure and death.
What are the Symptoms?
Sepsis is a medical emergency. Early symptoms may include:
- Very high or low temperature
- Uncontrollable shivering
- Rapid heart beat
- Fast or difficult breathing
In some cases, symptoms of more severe sepsis develop soon after, including:
- Feeling dizzy or faint
- Confusion or slurred speech
- Not passing as much urine as normal
- Cold or blotchy hands and feet
On their own, these symptoms can be symptoms of other health problems. But a combination of these symptoms, become progressively worse means you need to seek urgent medical attention. Early recognition and prompt treatment does save lives.
Why is the First Hour so Important?
If sepsis is treated aggressively within the first hour, “The Golden Hour”, medical evidence has shown that the risk of death is halved and survival rates can be more than 80%.
What are the Consequences?
Sepsis is a life-changing illness. People who are lucky enough to survive sepsis are often left with significant physical, psychological and social complications ranging from chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, memory loss, limb amputations, seizures, kidney impairment and bowel problems.
How Many People are Affected?
Sepsis is a global problem. Between 20–30 million cases occur each year, and it’s on the increase. Worldwide, sepsis accounts for roughly one third to one half of all deaths.
In the UK alone, it’s estimated that 44,000 people per year die from sepsis. That’s more than the total deaths from breast and prostate cancer combined.
Who is at Risk?
Anyone can develop sepsis. Anywhere in the world. It is indiscriminate.
However, some people are at a higher risk of developing sepsis because they have a generally higher risk of getting an infection. This includes babies and children, pregnant women, the elderly, people with a recent or current infection (e.g skin wound, chest infection), people who are already fighting a chronic illness and those whose immune system is already weak.
That’s why many people get sepsis when they already have another health problem.
Why can Sepsis be Hard to Diagnose?
Unfortunately, the symptoms used to diagnose sepsis can be quite general and are often symptoms of other illnesses. Because it often occurs in people with an existing condition, it can often be under-diagnosed or mis-labelled as something else. This stops us being able to accurately identify the scale of the problem.
There are three subgroups of sepsis, depending how severe it is:
- Severe Sepsis and
- Septic Shock.
What about Sepsis Worldwide?
Sepsis can kill no matter where you live in the world. However, in the developing world the problem is much worse: between 60-80% of childhood deaths are from sepsis – that’s more than 6 million children a year. It is also responsible for more than 100,000 cases of maternal sepsis – in women who are pregnant or have just given birth.
In the developed countries, sepsis is on the increase too. We’re living longer and when we go to hospital we are tending to have more complicated conditions: the number of people developing sepsis in hospital after surgery trebled from 1997 to 2006.