Sepsis, septicaemia and blood poisoning

Sepsis is often referred to as either blood poisoning or septicaemia, although it could be argued that both terms are not entirely accurate. Sepsis is not just limited to the blood and can affect the whole body, including the organs.

Septicaemia (another name for blood poisoning) refers to a bacterial infection of the blood, whereas sepsis can also be caused by viral or fungal infections.

Sepsis is a life-threatening illness caused by the body overreacting to an infection.

The body’s immune system goes into overdrive, setting off a series of reactions that can lead to widespread inflammation (swelling) and blood clotting.

Symptoms usually develop quickly and include:

  • a fever or high temperature over 38C (100.4F)
  • chills
  • a fast heartbeat
  • fast breathing

In severe cases you may notice:

  • you feel dizzy when you stand up
  • confusion or disorientation
  • nausea and vomiting

Read more about the symptoms of sepsis.

Although anybody can develop sepsis from a minor infection, some people are more vulnerable, such as 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 information about the causes of sepsis.

Stages of sepsis

Sepsis develops in three stages, described below.

  • Uncomplicated sepsis is caused by infections, such as flu or dental abscesses. It is very common and does not usually require hospital treatment.
  • Severe sepsis occurs when the body’s response to infection has started to interfere with the function of vital organs, such as the heart, kidneys, lungs or liver.
  • Septic shock occurs in severe cases of sepsis, when your blood pressure drops to a dangerously low level, preventing your vital organs from receiving enough oxygenated blood.

If it is not treated, sepsis can progress from uncomplicated sepsis to septic shock and can eventually lead to multiple organ failure and death.

If you think you have sepsis, it is important to get it diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible.

If you think that you or someone in your care has severe sepsis or septic shock, phone 999 and ask for an ambulance.

Read more information about how sepsis is diagnosed.

Treating sepsis

If sepsis is detected early and has not yet affected vital organs, it may be possible to treat the infection at home with antibiotics. Most people with uncomplicated sepsis make a full recovery.

Severe sepsis and septic shock are considered medical emergencies and normally require admission to an intensive care unit, where the body’s organs can be supported while the infection is treated.

Because of problems with vital organs, people with severe sepsis are likely to be very ill, and approximately 30-50% will die as a result of the condition.

Read more information about how sepsis is treated.

How common is it?

It is estimated that there are over 30,000 cases of severe sepsis in the UK every year, and the number seems to be rising.

Page last reviewed: 02/05/2012

Next review due: 02/05/2014


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The 5 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

briege said on 18 February 2014

I have been discharged from hospital after 7 days as I had sepsis.

I still feel very tired and have a recurring pain in my left lung and heartburn symptoms.

I also have just developed a pain in my left thigh.

Is this normal and how long does it take you to fully recover from sepsis.
I have finished my antibiotics.

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CptnK said on 15 September 2013

My mother sadly died after 1 month in intensive care when she got sepsis. She had a stomach ulcer caused by ibuprofen and had an operation to remove the affected part of her bowel. Although the operation was successful she went into septic shock afterwards. That was 15 years ago. One month ago my 14 year old daughter also had sepsis caused by a bacterial infection. Fortunately, my daughter pulled through after 8 days in the high dependency ward in the paediatric unit. She was looked after wonderfully by some fantastic doctors and nurses and is now recovering at home. My wife did brilliantly getting our daughter into hospital very quickly and we are greatful for all the help we received from the nurses who were superb.

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rebal said on 12 June 2012

sorry to say my brother took ill in 2006 with what we now know was septicaemia, one night he was vomiting and being sick doctor came out and said your be alright probably your ulcer playing up next morning he was dead only 40 years old so if your ill will similar symptoms go to the hospital and be sure no other symptoms were seen he was only ill for one night take care

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Eve Eve Eve said on 24 January 2012

MitchB6, never lose hope!!! I was nearly 1 year old when got sepsis. It was the first case in our area and doctors did not know what to do because they did not even know what it was. I have heard it was the last stages. I already had bruisers and cuts all over my body. My parents could see them coming... it was that quick. It was the matter of minutes and if it wasn;t for my parents, I wouldn't be here today. There was just one doctor who knew what it was and what to do and started to treat me. Others told my parents to be prepared for the worst. They didn't believe I could make it. But I did! and I didn't even have any demage to my organs. Miracles happen! You just need to believe in them and pray to God! I personally think it is good to talk a lot to the patient, just in case he can hear you. Take care and don't stop parying.

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MitchB6 said on 24 April 2011

hi, my father has this and i really wish we had of thought of looking here at this info or even considered he had sepsis. Only he left it too late and now is in intensive care on life support, also had to have quite a lot of flesh muscle and bone removed as it somehow spread to his bone as well. I only hope and pray he can pull through. Any experiences and outcomes are greatly appricated. As the doctors won't give me an idea of chance. But they think it unlikely. I do hope with all my heart and soul he proves them wrong.

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