Sepsis is the number one cause of preventable death in the world.

It claims more lives in the UK every year than breast, bowel, and prostate cancer combined, and strikes indiscriminately.

Without swift diagnosis and treatment, previously healthy adults and children can die within hours of sepsis developing.

What is sepsis?

Sometimes referred to as blood poisoning or septicaemia, sepsis is a life-threatening condition where the body’s immune system reacts abnormally to an infection by going into overdrive.

It begins to attack the person's own tissues and organs. Unless it is diagnosed and treated quickly, sepsis can result in shock, multiple organ failure, and death.

Sometimes surgery is required to remove limbs and tissue damaged by sepsis. Where sepsis develops into septic shock, the mortality rate is around 50%.

The Herald: Sepsis is a medical emergency and patients require urgent treatmentSepsis is a medical emergency and patients require urgent treatment (Image: PA)

What causes sepsis?

Sepsis can be caused by any kind of infection - bacterial, viral, or fungal - although bacterial infections are the most common trigger.

These can include common ailments such as urinary tract infections or Strep throat, or where bacteria enters the body through cuts to the skin.

However, even common respiratory illnesses like the flu or Covid can lead to sepsis.

The most common bugs behind sepsis cases are: Staphylococcus aureus, commonly known as 'Staph'; E. coli; and some types of Streptococcus.

How common is sepsis?

There are roughly 20,000 cases of sepsis in Scotland each year, and around 4000 deaths caused by sepsis.

Who is most at risk?

Sepsis always starts with an infection. Anyone can develop sepsis, even if they are otherwise fit and healthy.

However, people are at highest risk if they are over-65 or under one.

Sepsis is also more common in people with a weakened immune system; who have previously had sepsis; are living with chronic conditions such as diabetes, lung disease, cancer, and kidney disease; or have recently recovered from a severe illness or hospitalisation.

It is unclear exactly what causes some people develop sepsis in response to common infections, although genetics play a role.

People are much more likely to experience sepsis if a first-degree relative has had, or died from, it.

The Herald: Patients with suspected sepsis should go to A&E immediatelyPatients with suspected sepsis should go to A&E immediately (Image: PA)

How is it diagnosed and treated?

There is no single diagnostic test for sepsis. Doctors will usually screen for evidence of bacterial or viral infections - for example through urine and stool samples or throat swabs.

They will also look for signs of fever, very low blood pressure, increased heart rate, and difficulty breathing.

Sepsis is usually treated with antibiotics and by maintaining blood flow to organs.

What are the symptoms to look out for?

The signs of sepsis can vary depending on the age of the person affected.

  • In adults, the key symptoms are: slurred speech or confusion; extreme shivering or muscle pain; passing no urine (in a day); severe breathlessness; feeling like you’re going to die; skin appears mottled or discoloured
  • In children: very fast breathing; a ‘fit’ or convulsion; skin looks mottled, bluish, or pale; has a rash that does not fade when you press it; is very lethargic or difficult to wake; feels abnormally cold to touch
  • In infants and children under five: not feeding; vomiting repeatedly; not passing urine for 12 hours.