These are the answers to some of the most common questions we receive about sepsis, both from individuals and healthcare providers.

What is sepsis?

Sepsis is an illness that can happen in response to an infection and can quickly become life-threatening. It can affect all parts of the body.

In severe cases of sepsis, one or more organs fail. In the worst cases (known as septic shock), sepsis causes the blood pressure to decrease to dangerous levels and the heart to become weaker. Once this happens, multiple organs may fail quickly and, if not corrected, the patient will die.

Sepsis is a medical emergency that can be difficult to diagnose, and to treat.


What are the symptoms of sepsis?

Common symptoms of sepsis are fever, chills, rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, rashes, drowsiness, confusion, and disorientation, and not passing urine.

Many of these symptoms, such as fever and difficulty with breathing, are similar to symptoms of other conditions, like the flu. This makes it difficult to diagnose sepsis in its early stages, especially in hospitalised patients who will have other causes of those symptoms.


What causes sepsis?

Sepsis occurs when the body’s response to an infection becomes harmful. Infection causes your immune system releases chemicals into your blood to fight the infection.

These chemicals can cause generalised inflammation in the body making blood vessels leak and causing blood clots. These changes can damage all the body’s organs.

Almost any type of infections can lead to sepsis, this includes infections of the lungs, abdomen (such as appendicitis), urinary tract, skin, or other part of the body.

Infections acquired in hospitals or other healthcare settings (healthcare-associated infections), can also lead to sepsis.

Who gets sepsis?

Anyone can get sepsis, but the risk is higher in:

  • People with weak immune systems
  • Infants and young children
  • Elderly people
  • People with pre-existing illnesses, such as diabetes, AIDS, cancer, and kidney or liver disease
  • People suffering from a severe burn or physical trauma


How many people get sepsis?

Each year around 18,000 people are treated in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) in Australia and New Zealand for severe sepsis. The number of people treated for sepsis is increasing because:

  • The population is aging
  • More people have chronic illnesses
  • More people are getting being treated with immunosuppressive drugs, chemotherapy, and organ transplants
  • Bacteria are becoming more resistant to antibiotics
How is sepsis diagnosed?

Doctors will suspect sepsis from a number of physical symptoms like fever, increased heart rate, increased breathing, mental confusion or drowsiness. They will also do laboratory tests to confirm the diagnosis. These tests include a blood test to reveal if the number of white blood cells is abnormal (a common sign of sepsis), or tests to detect bacteria in the bloodstream or in urine.  X-ray and scans may be performed to identify or confirm the source of the infection.


How is sepsis treated?

People with sepsis are treated in hospital and those with severe sepsis are usually treated in the intensive care unit. Treatment targets the infection, while supporting vital organs and giving intravenous fluids and drugs to maintain blood pressure.

In severe cases when organs fail, life-support treatments such as artificial ventilation (breathing machine) or kidney dialysis, may be necessary. Surgery may be needed to control a local site of infection such as in appendicitis or following a perforated bowel.


Are there any long-term effects of sepsis?

Many people who survive severe sepsis recover completely and return to normal lives.

Some people, especially those who have required prolonged treatment in an ICU may experience longer term problems including permanent organ damage.

Other longer term effects include difficulty sleeping, concentrating or returning to work, reduced energy and musculoskeletal problems.


What is being done to improve outcomes from sepsis?

Many government agencies, doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers are working to prevent sepsis and to improve the recognition and treatment of sepsis.

Examples are:

  • Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care
    • Healthcare Associated Infection (HAI) Prevention Program
    • National Antimicrobial Stewardship Initiative
    • National Hand Hygiene Initiatives
  • National Infection Control Guidelines
  • NSW Clinical Excellence Commission’s “Sepsis Kills” Program
  • Better Care Victoria’s ‘Sepsis Improvement Project’