Introduction 

Sepsis, also referred to as blood poisoning or septicaemia, is a potentially life-threatening condition, triggered by an infection or injury.

In sepsis, the body’s immune system goes into overdrive as it tries to fight an infection.

This can reduce the blood supply to vital organs such as the brain, heart and kidneys.

Without quick treatment, sepsis can lead to multiple organ failure and death.

Symptoms

Early symptoms of sepsis may include:

  • a high temperature (fever) or low body temperature
  • chills and shivering
  • a fast heartbeat
  • fast breathing

In some cases, symptoms of more severe sepsis or septic shock (when your blood pressure drops to a dangerously low level) develop soon after. These can include:

  • feeling dizzy or faint
  • a change in mental state, such as confusion or disorientation
  • diarrhoea 
  • nausea and vomiting
  • slurred speech
  • severe muscle pain
  • severe breathlessness
  • less urine production than normal (for example, not urinating for a day)
  • cold, clammy and pale or mottled skin
  • loss of consciousness

When to seek medical advice

See your GP immediately or call NHS 111 if you've recently had an infection or injury and you have possible early signs of sepsis.

If sepsis is suspected, you'll usually be referred to hospital for further diagnosis and treatment.

Severe sepsis and septic shock are medical emergencies. If you think that you or someone in your care has one of these conditions, call 999 and ask for an ambulance.

How is sepsis diagnosed?

Sepsis is often diagnosed based on simple measurements such as your temperature, heart rate and breathing rate, and may require a simple blood test.

Other tests that can help to determine the type of infection, where it's located and which body functions have been affected include:

  • urine or stool samples
  • a wound culture  where a small sample of tissue, skin or fluid is taken from the affected area for testing
  • respiratory secretion testing  taking a sample of saliva, phlegm or mucus
  • blood pressure tests
  • imaging studies  such as an X-rayultrasound scan or computerised tomography (CT) scan

How sepsis is treated

If sepsis is detected early and hasn't yet affected vital organs, it may be possible to treat the infection at home with antibiotics. Most people who have sepsis detected at this stage make a full recovery.

Almost all people with severe sepsis and septic shock require admission to hospital. Some people may require admission to an intensive care unit (ICU).

Due to problems with vital organs, people with severe sepsis are likely to be very ill and the condition can be fatal. However, if identified and treated quickly, sepsis is treatable, and in most cases leads to a full recovery with no lasting problems.

Read more about treating sepsis.

Recovering from sepsis

The amount of time it takes to fully recover from sepsis varies, depending on factors such as:

  • the severity of the sepsis
  • the person's overall health
  • how much time was spent in hospital
  • whether treatment was needed in an ICU

Some people make a full recovery quicker than others and not everyone experiences long-term problems.

However, possible problems may include physical symptoms such as:

  • feeling lethargic or excessively tired
  • muscle weakness
  • swollen limbs or joint pain
  • chest pain or breathlessness
  • post-sepsis syndrome

Being seriously ill can also have a psychological or emotional impact, leading to problems such as:

Read more about recovering from sepsis on The UK Sepsis Trust website.

Who's at risk?

Each year in the UK, it's estimated that more than 100,000 people are admitted to hospital with sepsis. Around 31,000 people die every year as a result of the condition.

Anyone can develop sepsis after an injury or minor infection, although some people are more vulnerable. People most at risk of sepsis include those:

  • with a medical condition or receiving medical treatment that weakens their immune system
  • who are already in hospital with a serious illness
  • who are very young or very old
  • who have just had surgery or who have wounds or injuries as a result of an accident

Read more about the causes of sepsis.




Sepsis, septicaemia and blood poisoning

Although sepsis is often referred to as either blood poisoning or septicaemia, these terms refer to invasion of bacteria into the bloodstream.

Sepsis can affect multiple organs or the entire body  even without blood poisoning or septicaemia.

Sepsis can also be caused by viral or fungal infections, although bacterial infections are by far the most common cause.

Page last reviewed: 24/02/2016

Next review due: 24/02/2018