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Sepsis is one of the most common deadly diseases in the world. Previously almost unconsidered in the Western world, recent tragic cases like the deaths of eleven-year-old Rory Staunton from New York and one-year-old William Mead from Cornwall, England have raised the profile of this potentially-fatal disease.
It's one of the only diseases to strike rich and poor, First World and Third World, with equal ferocity. Sepsis is increasing in the developed world at an unprecedented rate, by 8-13% per year. Despite antibiotics, and modern medical care, it is still one of the primary causes of death by infection, killing 44,000 people every year in the UK alone.
That's more than the number of people who die from breast and bowel cancer combined!
In the developing world, the figures are even higher. Sepsis accounts for 60-80% of childhood deaths, killing more than 6 million babies and children every year.
What is sepsis?
Commonly known as "blood poisoning", sepsis is a life-threatening reaction to an infection. It can develop as a response to any infection, including skin infection, pneumonia, a kidney infection, or appendicitis. However, sepsis can occur following routine operations, such as caesarean sections, or having a drip inserted.
When you have an infection, germs enter our body, causing illness.
Our body tries to fight the illness, but - in its attempt to protect us - our immune system causes widespread inflammation, leaky blood vessels and abnormal blood-clotting. This process damages the very organs that keep us alive. In severe cases, there is an extreme drop in blood pressure, the patient experiences multiple organ failure and dies of septic shock within hours.
How quickly does that happen?
The process varies from person to person. Some patients become very ill very quickly, deteriorating rapidly and dying within a few hours of sepsis infection.
The best thing you can do is seek immediate medical attention if you experience symptoms.
What are the symptoms of sepsis?
There's no single sign of sepsis. However, if you get this combination of symptoms after an infection of any kind (whether viral, bacterial or fungal - though bacterial is most common), go see your doctor:
- Shivering, fever, or very cold
- Extreme pain or severe discomfort (especially the "worst ever")
- Pale or discoloured skin
- Sleepy or confused
- I feel like I might die
- Short of breath
Who gets sepsis?
Anyone can get sepsis, although it's most common in the following vulnerable groups:
- Babies and young children
- Older people
- People with chronic illness: diabetes, AIDS, cancer, kidney and liver disease
- People with a severe burn or wound
- Pregnant women
How is Sepsis diagnosed?
Sepsis is diagnosed by doctors checking the heart rate, respiratory rate, and examining the patient for fever. Your doctor will usually perform a blood test to see if you have an abnormally-high number of white blood cells, a sign of infection. Further blood tests and urinalysis may be used to find infectious agents. A CT scan may be performed to help find the initial site of infection.