Medical Negligence

How to spot sepsis and what to tell your doctor

How to spot sepsis and what to tell your doctor

09 December 2022

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are an estimated 11 million deaths every year from sepsis. While in the UK, research from Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation shows that up to 48,000 people die from sepsis every year, though this is based on pre-pandemic numbers, leaving charities to believe that the current number may be higher.

Left undiagnosed, sepsis can be fatal. Among survivors, it’s thought that around 40% can suffer from life-altering conditions - such as cognitive, psychological or physiological - meaning knowing how to spot and report sepsis effectively can be life-saving.

What is sepsis? Common myths debunked

It’s a common misconception that ‘infection’ and ‘sepsis’ mean the same thing; not surprising, as the terms are often used interchangeably. However, sepsis is not the same as an infection, and it’s important to understand the difference.

An infection is an invasion of a microscopic organism or an overgrowth of a natural organism within the body.

Sepsis is an immune response, meaning it is a bodily function, much like an allergic reaction. The response is triggered by an infection, but is not itself infectious.

Sepsis is also sometimes referred to as ‘blood poisoning’ or a ‘blood infection’, but these terms are also incorrect.

The more these differences are misunderstood, the more medical complications and problems can arise. Misdiagnosis, or not noticing the early signs of sepsis, could result in chronic pain, chronic fatigue, organ dysfunction and failure as well as amputations and much more. The risk of these happening increases the longer sepsis goes untreated.

Very severe sepsis can become what is known as septic shock. This is the final, most dangerous stage of sepsis, and means you are likely to require treatment in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Treatment in an ICU ward can lead to other complications such as delirium, PTSD, and muscle wastage.

Here, our medical negligence litigation nurse, Matt Brown, sets out our top tips for noticing the signs of sepsis, and what you should do.

What are the symptoms of sepsis?

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition caused by the body’s reaction to an infection. Rather than simply helping to fight the infection, the body’s immune system goes into overdrive, which can cause shock, organ failure and death if not treated promptly.

It can be triggered by any infection, such as chest or lung infections and UTIs. Furthermore, the infection itself does not need to be severe to trigger sepsis.

Currently, it is not understood why some people will develop sepsis as a result of common infections. However, as it can develop from relatively minor infections, it’s critical that people are aware of the causes and symptoms of sepsis to ensure proper medical care is received.

What are the first signs of sepsis?

It can be difficult to spot sepsis, as early warning signs can be very subtle. For instance, you may feel very unwell or as if something is wrong. This can be subjective and difficult to accurately define. If you’re at all worried, you should call NHS 111.

According to the NHS website, early symptoms of sepsis could include:

  • Feeling very unwell, or like something is seriously wrong
  • Not passing water (urinating) all day (or for 12 hours in babies and young children)
  • Swelling or pain around a cut or wound
  • A very high, or very low, temperature - feeling hot or cold to the touch, or shivering
  • For babies and young children, vomiting or being unable to keep food or milk down

What are the symptoms of sepsis?

One of the main ways to prevent sepsis becoming fatal is to become familiar with the symptoms so you can protect not only yourself, but your loved ones. The key symptoms in adults may include:

  • Increase or decrease in normal body temperature
  • Difficulty breathing, breathlessness, or breathing too fast
  • Slurred speech, acting confused or not making sense
  • Blue, grey, pale or blotchy skin, lips or tongue
  • A rash that doesn’t fade when you roll a glass over it

Symptoms in children and babies can be different, though include blotchy skin, difficulty breathing, and a rash. Other common symptoms include:

  • Having fits
  • Difficulty to wake up, or being sleepier than normal
  • Not responding like they normally would, including a lack of interest in normal activities or food
  • A weak, high-pitched cry unlike their normal cry

If you have a confirmed or suspected infection, as well as any symptoms listed, you may have sepsis and need immediate treatment. You should seek medical help urgently by calling 999 or go straight to A&E.

For more information on the signs of sepsis, go to the NHS website.

What are the three stages of sepsis?

While not officially recognised on the NHS website, sepsis can often be discussed in terms of ‘stages’. These stages are used to describe how serious the condition is, and to categorise the likelihood of additional complications, or death, stemming from the condition.

The three stages are often given as:

  • Sepsis
  • Severe sepsis
  • Septic shock

As with many other conditions, the possibility of complications is significantly reduced if sepsis is diagnosed and treated as early as possible. If the condition has already become severe, there is an increased risk of organ damage as a result of the body’s inflammation.

Septic shock is life-threatening, and can cause your organs to fail. This happens when your blood pressure lowers significantly, resulting in a lack of blood reaching vital organs such as the brain or liver.

How can you ensure you receive the right treatment for sepsis?

If you are concerned that you or a loved one may have sepsis, you should seek medical assistance immediately. When you speak to a medical professional, make sure to let them know that you think it may be sepsis and why you think so.

This tells your doctor or other healthcare professional that you are worried that the symptoms are not normal and could be very serious. It gives them a clear insight into what you are thinking and what your concerns are. It’s a simple question, but it could save lives.

What is the 'Sepsis Six'?

Receiving early treatment for sepsis dramatically improves the chances of a full recovery. Medical treatment should start within an hour if your doctor or a healthcare professional thinks you have sepsis.

There are six things that they should do for you, known as the ‘Sepsis Six’. This includes providing oxygen, taking cultures, administering antibiotics and fluids, lactate measurement and urine output monitoring.

NHS England has reported that the Sepsis Six Care Bundle has reduced relative risk of death by over 46% in patients with severe sepsis when administered within one hour - so it’s crucial these measures are taken as soon as possible.

Can you claim for sepsis?

If you are found to have sepsis and have not received the correct or adequate medical treatment by a doctor or healthcare professional upon seeking help, you could be entitled to compensation in a medical negligence claim.

It is incredibly important in cases of sepsis to act fast. Therefore, if you have experienced delays in diagnosing or treating sepsis, you should contact one of our sepsis specialists today to discuss making a claim.

Is there a time limit for a sepsis claim?

It’s important to know that there is a time limit to bring a claim, which is 3 years from the date of your treatment, or when you became aware that the treatment was potentially negligent.

Therefore, if you or a loved one has suffered due to negligent sepsis care, it’s important to speak to a medical negligence expert as soon as possible to help recover costs for ongoing treatment and any necessary rehabilitation.

How Slater and Gordon can help

Slater and Gordon have a team of medical negligence solicitors, who are experienced in managing sepsis claims for people who have ended up with serious complications from a misdiagnosis or a delay in treatment.

We understand that sepsis can be extremely distressing for everyone involved. Our experts not only support you through your legal needs, but also recognise the emotions you’re going through, which is why we set out to answer any questions you may have in a personable and understanding manner. With an in-house litigation nurse within the team, we’re able to assess and evaluate your medical records to identify which mistakes were made and which aspects of your medical care we’ll include in your claim.

Our in-house rehabilitation coordinator will also organise any necessary rehabilitation you may need, so you can focus on recovery whilst we fight for your compensation.

For more information you can contact one of our advisors either online or at 0330 041 5869, you can also read the NICE guidance on Sepsis for more information.

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