Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust and South Central Ambulance Service have warned that Sepsis arises when the body’s response to an infection injures its own tissues and organs.
It may lead to shock, multi-organ failure and death especially if not recognised early and treated promptly. Sepsis is the final common pathway to death from most infectious diseases worldwide, including viruses such as Covid-19.
The deadly disease affects over 250,000 people every year in the UK claiming at least 44,000 lives – more lives than breast, bowel and prostate cancer put together.
Sepsis occurs when the body’s response to an infection damages its own tissues and organs. Instead of local inflammation resulting from a local infection, the body’s entire system goes into inflammation.
Worldwide, over eight million people die from sepsis every year and it is also a leading cause of maternal death. It is frequently under-diagnosed at an early stage – when it is still potentially reversible. Early recognition and treatment reduce sepsis mortality by 50 percent.
Sepsis can affect anyone, old or young, in good health or with existing illnesses. However, those at higher risk of developing sepsis are people aged over 75 or young children under a year old, as well as those who have experienced physical trauma such as fractures. Patients who have compromised immune systems, such as patients who have undergone recent chemotherapy, are particularly at risk.
To prevent the worst outcomes - from chronic disabilities to death - people need to be more aware of the symptoms that might indicate sepsis, such as slurred speech, confusion, extreme shivering, muscle pain, lack of urination, purple rash or skin mottled and discoloured, fever or breathlessness. Not all the symptoms come at the same time and just one sign could be enough to seek immediate medical help.
A leading ambulance service clinician added his voice on a YouTube video which urges people to familiarise themselves with the signs and symptoms of Sepsis, sometimes known as blood poisoning.
Mark Ainsworth-Smith MBE, a consultant pre-hospital care practitioner at South Central Ambulance Service (SCAS), said anyone can potentially develop the condition which occurs when the immune system overreacts to an infection – including viral infections such as Covid-19.
Symptoms can be vague and initially often feel like flu, gastroenteritis or a chest infection but people can worsen very quickly. This can cause their blood pressure to fall and shock the body which, if not treated immediately, can result in organ failure, he said.
However, if recognised and diagnosed early it can be treated effectively with medicines such as antibiotics and intravenous fluids, avoiding severe consequences.
“Most of us who develop an infection will be fine; we will recover and go completely back to normal, but certain people will suffer a dysregulated response in the body which means they can become very unwell very quickly,” said Mr Ainsworth-Smith.
“This is of concern as, although there are higher risk groups, Sepsis can affect anyone and it can sometimes be hard to spot, so it is really important people familiarise themselves with the signs and take action when they need to.
“The pandemic has been a complicating factor because some patients have attributed their symptoms to Covid-19 and some have been scared to attend hospitals and GP surgeries to be assessed in fear that they are going to catch Covid-19.
“This has led some patients to delay seeking medical attention. We want to take the opportunity to highlight the condition and again raise awareness of Sepsis.”
Mr Ainsworth-Smith said it was important for anyone who develops a fever and high temperature or shivering to take it seriously and seek medical advice. He also said the development of new confusion was a particularly worrying sign.
“Symptoms such as a high fever or feeling really unwell or shivering badly are absolutely things that should be addressed and we would recommend people contact their GP, phone 111 or use 111 online if they are experiencing these symptoms and want to get a professional opinion,” he explained.
“However, if they truly think they've got Sepsis – particularly if they are a person in a high risk group – that is an emergency and it's perfectly appropriate to phone 999 in those circumstances where our expert staff will ensure they get the treatment they need as quickly as possible.
“We have done a lot of education with our staff to help them to recognise patients with Sepsis. When Sepsis is diagnosed, our staff are well trained to start initial treatment before transporting seriously unwell patients rapidly to hospital. Our crews will alert the hospital so that Sepsis specialists are ready and waiting when they arrive."
For more information, watch Mr Ainsworth-Smith on YouTube on this page or visit www.worldsepsisday.org