What is sepsis?
Sepsis can also be known as septicaemia, blood infection or blood poisoning. It occurs when what may be a simple infection progresses throughout the body and the body’s response to an infection damages its own organs and tissues.
Sepsis can be caused by any type of infection – bacterial, viral or fungal. It can lead to tissue damage, multiple organ failure and death. Septic shock is the most serious form of sepsis.
Who can get sepsis?
Both adults and children can get sepsis and any kind of infection can lead to sepsis.
Children and newborns have a higher risk of sepsis compared to adults. The risk can be higher in:
What are the signs and symptons of sepsis?
As sepsis can develop from common infections, the early signs and symptoms may be mild and similar to the underlying infection. The signs can be vague, without any specific features that stand out from other illnesses. This makes diagnosis challenging, especially in newborn babies. The difference with sepsis is that your child will become more severely ill. The symptoms listed below can be a sign that more severe disease is present.
When a child has sepsis, their parents often feel that their child is very unwell or worried that they are not improving – this is important information. You know your child best. Let a doctor or nurse know if you are worried that your child is very sick or getting worse, especially if you know they have an infection.
It’s important for you to ask: ‘Could it be sepsis?’
The signs and symptoms may look different in younger children compared with older children. Infants and newborns commonly have non-specific symptoms and signs, such as feeding difficulties or not settling.
Common sepsis signs in children
What should I do if my child has symptoms of sepsis?
Sepsis is a medical emergency. If you think your child may have sepsis, you need to go to hospital or call 000. If your child does have sepsis, they will be more likely to get better if they receive treatment as soon as possible.
If your child has signs and symptoms of sepsis when they see a healthcare provider, or if they develop signs and symptoms during a hospital stay, the healthcare team will carry out physical checks such as taking their temperature and blood pressure and doing blood tests. These tests can help your child’s healthcare team to understand their condition, but there is no single laboratory test for sepsis.
What is the treatment for sepsis?
If sepsis is suspected, your child’s clinical team may:
Sepsis affects every child differently, and the care required depends on the severity of the illness. Your child may require a hospital stay, or admission to a paediatric intensive care unit.
Your healthcare team should talk to you throughout your child’s admission about:
Remember that you and your family should be informed about your child’s treatment options and involved in decisions about their care.
Let your healthcare team know if you need a translator or interpreter; they can help to arrange this. If you identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander liaison officer can meet with you if you wish.
Dealing with a complex health issue like sepsis can be stressful and challenging. Let your healthcare team know if you or a family member need support, such as from a social worker.
Leaving hospital is not the end of the journey. Depending on the situation, your child may need support from several clinicians to get back to the level of physical and mental wellness they had before the sepsis diagnosis. These can include:
When your child is discharged from hospital, their healthcare team will give you a discharge summary that gives important information about the care your child received in hospital and the care they will need afterwards, including their medicines and required appointments.
What happens when you child is back home?
Sepsis can affect many organs in the body and affects everyone differently. Children can make a full recovery however it may take some time, before they are well enough to return to day care or school.
Some children experience physical symptoms such as headaches and other pain, tiredness, difficulties sleeping, changes in appetite, and changes in muscle tone or weakness. Children can also suffer cognitive and psychosocial symptoms, including changes in behaviour, changes in concentration and fear of medical treatments.
Some children can experience long-lasting physical, cognitive and psychological effects.
This is called ‘post‑sepsis syndrome’. We are still learning how children are affected by post-sepsis syndrome.
Your child’s healthcare team can help you to manage any ongoing effects of sepsis and can refer you to other medical specialists or healthcare providers if necessary.
Children who have had sepsis have an increased risk of having sepsis again in the short term. This is thought to be due to changes in the immune system caused by sepsis. Infections cannot always be avoided, so if your child does develop an infection, monitor them for signs of sepsis and go to your GP or to hospital if you are concerned.
To reduce the risk of infections (and sepsis):
More information about sepsis
The Sepsis Clinical Care Standard provides guidance to clinicians and healthcare services, and information for patients about the care they can expect to receive if they have sepsis.
The following resources can help families of children who have had sepsis.
Peer support groups include:
In case of limb amputation: