What is sepsis? Here are the signs to look for

Analysis: Thousands of people develop sepsis each year in Ireland and a fifth die, so how can we prevent this life-threatening disease?

We have all heard of sepsis, but do we know what it is? The general definition used to describe septicemia it often says something like this: ‘Sepsis is a life-threatening response to an infection in the body.’

But what exactly does this mean? We get infections all the time – invaders like bacteria Y virus that cause ailments like tonsillitis, conjunctivitis either flu they invade our bodies and make us sick, but we can often manage and recover without medical intervention. This is because the human body has a natural army to defend itself against these pathogenic invaders known collectively as the immune system. The immune system is made up of a variety of specialized organs, cells, and proteins (such as antibodies) who are experts at killing and removing these foreign microbes.

So what exactly goes wrong in sepsis that allows infections to become life-threatening? During sepsis, the immune system overreacts; that is, the immune response against invading microbes causing infection is so intense that many human tissues and organs become collateral damage. In an effort to kill invading microbes, the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues and cells that become damaged and injured, causing inflammation to spiral out of control.

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From RTE Radio 1’s Drivetime, HSE’s Dr. Martina Healy on the importance of early recognition and treatment of sepsis

Once the immune system is activated, it causes a domino effect of swollen tissues that is seen in sepsis, and once it starts, it’s very hard to stop. It quickly becomes a life-threatening illness, where medical attention should be sought immediately.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) Sepsis causes 1 in 5 deaths worldwide every year. In Ireland alone, more than 12,000 people developed sepsis in 2019 and more than 18% of died in hospital. Sepsis is complicated by organ failure that occurs in many patients. For example, up to 42% of patients will develop respiratory failure, 36% cardiovascular failure, 32% renal failure, 15% hematologic failure, 9% liver failure, and 9% liver failure. brain failure. Even patients who recover from sepsis are often left with debilitating, life-changing consequences.

Sepsis can affect anyone regardless of age or health. That said, there are certain groups of people who have a higher vulnerability to developing sepsis, including the elderly, newborn babies, people who are pregnant or recently pregnant, and people who are currently in the hospital or intensive care unit. . Certain medical conditions can make people more susceptible to sepsis, including cancer, autoimmune conditions, kidney disease, liver cirrhosis, HIV or AIDS.

“Although globally there is a higher incidence of women who develop sepsis, mortality from sepsis is higher in men” Photo: Getty Images

Sepsis is treatable, but we must act quickly. There are two main approaches to preventing sepsis. First, to prevent initial microbial transmission and infection both in the general population and in healthcare settings. This involves using good hygiene practices, from washing your hands, protecting your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, preparing food safely, consuming safe water, and accepting available vaccines against pathogens. These approaches are important when we consider that, globally, in 2017, diarrheal diseases were the largest contributors to sepsis, while respiratory infections caused the largest number of sepsis-related deaths.

The second step is to prevent an infection from progressing to sepsis. Early detection of sepsis, seeking urgent medical care, and prompt administration of antibiotics when appropriate help fight sepsis. Therefore, probably the most important thing we can do to combat sepsis is to recognize the symptoms and seek urgent medical attention to obtain the best results for the patient.

Sepsis symptoms

These are displayed on the side of many Irish emergency ambulance and paramedic unit vehicles. The following is an acronym for sepsis symptoms:

yes – Slurred speech or confusion

me – Extreme chills, muscle pain, fever

P – Do not urinate

yes – Severe shortness of breath

me – It feels like you’re going to die.

yes – Mottled or discolored skin

Other symptoms may also include:

Altered mental status, shortness of breath, rapid breathing, increased heart rate, weak pulse, low blood pressure, and cold extremities (hands and feet). Know the symptoms – save lives!

Now let’s do some myth busting

Sepsis is contagious

Fake. Sepsis is not contagious as it is an overreaction of a person’s immune system that cannot be spread to another person. However, the precursor to sepsis is an infection, which can be contagious.

Sepsis only affects the elderly

Fake. In 2017, 41% of sepsis cases worldwide were in children under 5 years of age. Additionally, in 2019, 5% of sepsis cases in Ireland affected children aged 0-15 years, while 3% of sepsis cases in Ireland were pregnancy-related.

Recovery is possible if sepsis is identified early

Real. Recovery from sepsis is possible, but it is important to emphasize that early detection of sepsis is essential. Of sepsis survivors globally, one-third will die within a year of having sepsis, one-sixth will experience significant morbidity, and 40% will be rehospitalized within 90 days of being discharged from the hospital.

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From RTE PrimeTime, Conor Wilson reports on sepsis, the infection that can bring perfectly healthy people to the brink of death.

Sepsis affects more women than men

Real. Although there is a higher incidence of women developing sepsis worldwide, mortality from sepsis is higher in men.

Low- and middle-income countries are at increased risk of sepsis

Real. 85% of sepsis and sepsis-related mortality occur in countries with low and medium sociodemographic markers, predominantly in sub-Saharan and southeastern Africa. Asia.

On a positive note, cases of sepsis have decreased by 21% between 2017 and 2019 in Ireland. Hopefully, this positive metric will continue to improve in the future and is in part thanks to increased education campaigns and changes in the medical definitions of sepsis used in hospitals. Knowing the symptoms, prevention tips and acting urgently on suspected sepsis, both case and mortality figures may continue to decline in Ireland. Don’t be afraid to ask — ‘Could it be sepsis?’ — could save someone’s life.

Further information related to sepsis can be found at HSE Y WHO websites


The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ


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