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Sepsis: The Hidden Killer You Need to Know About

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Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that arises when the body’s response to an infection causes injury to its own tissues and organs. It is a major cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide, with an estimated 49 million cases and 11 million deaths annually​​. Early recognition and treatment are crucial to improving outcomes and reducing the high mortality rate associated with this condition.

What is sepsis?

Sepsis occurs when an infection triggers a chain reaction throughout the body. The immune system’s overreaction to the infection can cause widespread inflammation, leading to tissue damage, organ failure, and potentially death. This condition is often a complication of infections such as pneumonia, urinary tract infections, abdominal infections, and skin infections​​.

Causes and risk factors

Sepsis is usually caused by bacterial infections but can also result from viral, fungal, or parasitic infections​. Certain populations are at higher risk, including:

  • Older adults
  • Infants and young children
  • Pregnant or recently pregnant women
  • Individuals with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, or cancer
  • Those with weakened immune systems, including people with HIV/AIDS or those undergoing chemotherapy
  • Hospitalised patients, particularly those in intensive care units​

Signs and symptoms

The symptoms of sepsis can vary widely, making it challenging to diagnose. Common symptoms include:

  • Fever or hypothermia (low body temperature)
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Extreme pain or discomfort
  • Clammy or sweaty skin
  • Low blood pressure leads to septic shock​

In children, symptoms can include fast breathing, convulsions, pale or mottled skin, lethargy, and difficulty waking up. It is crucial to seek medical attention immediately if sepsis is suspected, as early intervention is key to improving survival rates​​.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosing sepsis involves a combination of clinical assessment, laboratory tests, and imaging studies to identify the source of infection and assess the extent of organ dysfunction. Blood tests are often used to detect markers of infection and inflammation, such as C-reactive protein (CRP) and procalcitonin​​.

Treatment for sepsis typically involves:

Prevention and management

Preventing sepsis involves both community and healthcare measures. In the community, good hygiene practices, timely vaccination, and prompt treatment of infections can reduce the risk of sepsis. In healthcare settings, infection prevention and control measures, including hand hygiene and the appropriate use of antibiotics, are essential​​.

Early recognition and timely management of sepsis are critical. Healthcare providers use various tools, such as the National Early Warning Score (NEWS2), to identify and respond to sepsis promptly. Updated guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) emphasise the importance of early assessment, appropriate antibiotic use, and ongoing monitoring of patients with suspected sepsis​​.

Long-term impact

Survivors of sepsis often face long-term consequences, including physical, psychological, and cognitive impairments. This condition, known as post-sepsis syndrome, can significantly affect quality of life and may require ongoing medical care and rehabilitation​​.


Sepsis is a critical medical emergency that demands immediate attention and treatment. Awareness of the signs and symptoms, along with prompt medical intervention, can save lives. Ongoing research and updated clinical guidelines continue to improve our understanding and management of this complex condition, offering hope for better outcomes for those affected by sepsis​.

For more detailed information, you can visit resources such as the World Health Organization and the UK Sepsis Trust.

Eleanor James, MD is a healthcare researcher with a focus on infectious diseases.

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