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Sepsis: What is the life-threatening condition and the red flag symptoms you need to be aware of

I'm sure we've all seen storylines in soap operas along with adverts on the side of ambulances or even we know someone who has had sepsis, but what actually is it?

World Sepsis Day on 13 September is an opportune moment to consider what do we know about sepsis and what do we need to know. It's so important that we all understand what sepsis is and how to spot the symptoms before it's too late. Being aware of sepsis could just save yours or a loved one's life.

What is sepsis?

Sepsis isn’t a disease, it's our body’s response to an infection and can affect anyone, of any age, of any ethnicity, with or without underlying health conditions.   Sepsis is life-threatening requiring urgent treatment.

The condition occurs when our body’s immune system reacts more aggressively to an infection. The immune system goes into overdrive in an attempt to fight the infection, and as it progresses, it starts to shut down organs, reducing blood and oxygen supply to limbs in an attempt to protect the heart and brain. In doing so if not treated quickly, it can lead to septic shock, multi-organ failure, limb loss and sometimes death.  

Why does sepsis happen?

We simply don’t know but we do know that it starts with an infection – so it could be chest infection, an insect bite, post-operative infection. However, these are only a few examples.  

We do know that with recognising the symptoms and providing appropriate antibiotic treatment we can reduce the severity of the outcome and hopefully avoid loss of life. 

The startling numbers affected by sepsis

What we do know through the work of the charity, UK Sepsis Trust, is that at least five people die every hour in the UK with sepsis and at least 44,000 people die of sepsis each year in the UK – that’s where the deaths are attributed to sepsis. However, the reality is a lot more die from sepsis alongside other conditions.  

Around 2,000 children each year develop sepsis in the UK and there are more than 150,000 cases of sepsis in children each year.  

Sadly, as I see all too often through my work as a specialist medical negligence lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, sepsis its treated too late. Approximately 25% of all sepsis deaths in the UK would have been preventable with a timely diagnosis and treatment.

Those who survive are often left with physical, cognitive and psychological injuries as well as post-sepsis syndrome which includes extreme fatigue. I work with clients who have suffered amputations and life-changing injuries as a result of sepsis as well as those who have lost a loved one.

How to spot sepsis in adults 

UK Sepsis Trust sets out the following signs to watch out for and advise to seek urgent medical attention if any develop: -

Slurred speech or confusion

Extreme Shivering or muscle pain

Passing no urine (in a day)

Severe breathlessness

It feels like you are going to die

Skin mottled or discoloured.

With children, the signs may be a bit different, and you should look out for: -

Fast breathing

Having a fit or convulsion

They looks mottled, bluish or pale

A rash that doesn’t fade when you press it

A child is very lethargic and difficult to wake

They feel abnormally cold to touch

And also look out for if they’ve vomited repeatedly, aren't feeding or haven’t passed urine for 12 hours.

What to do if you suspect sepsis

Call NHS 111 raising concerns of sepsis or go straight to A&E and ask “Could it be Sepsis?”

All hospital staff should be aware of the signs of sepsis and if flagging concerns about your own health or that of a loved one, don’t be afraid to ask them if they’ve thought about sepsis. Mention the symptoms that are being displayed and say they're signs of sepsis. 

Hopefully medical treatment will be given very quickly including appropriate antibiotics to support the body's fight of the infection and prevent sepsis causing critical injuries. With appropriate and timely treatment most people will survive.

What are my legal rights following misdiagnosis or treatment delay?

If you believe that you or a loved one haven’t receivd appropriate treatment or there have been delays and it’s caused an injury, then you're able to speak to specialist solicitors like me and my team who can advise on what the most appropriate way forward is and whether a there is a legal claim for damages.

A legal claim can not only provide answers but also access to specialist rehabilitation and therapies to try and live with the effects of the condition, or specialist support to try and come to terms with a bereavement. 

However, there's also more to the legal process. We understand the need to support those affected by sepsis with issues relating to employment, wills and benefits as well as family issues. It's also important for emotional support to be available through our support rehabilitation co-ordinators and through the support groups provided by UK Sepsis Trust, one of key charity partners.    

I would encourage everyone to become sepsis savvy as it could just save a life. 

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting people and families affected by sepsis at our dedicated sepsis negligence claims section.  

More information on UK Sepsis Trust can be found on its website. More information on becoming sepsis savvy is also available on the charity's website.