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Septicaemia (sepsis)

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Septicaemia (sepsis)

What is septicaemia?

Septicaemia, also known as sepsis, is a potentially life-threatening infection in which large amounts of bacteria are present in the blood. It is commonly referred to as blood poisoning.

What causes it?

Septicaemia usually arises as a result of localised infection in the body. The primary site of infection may occur in the respiratory system, the skin, the gastrointestinal system or the genitourinary system. It may coincide with very aggressive infections such as meningitis.

Bacteria usually spill over from the primary infection site into the blood and are carried throughout the body thereby spreading infection to various systems of the body.

Infection spreads throughout the body via the blood stream.

What are the symptoms?

The affected person may have symptoms of the associated condition that triggered the septicaemia such as symptoms of pneumonia or severe urinary infection.

The condition usually begins with fever and chills. Drenching sweats may occur. The heart rate and respiratory rate (number of breaths per minute) rise in association with the rising fever. The affected individual will feel very ill indeed with profound feelings of weakness.

As the condition evolves the person may begin to feel very cold and clammy. The blood pressure starts to fall and the person may lapse into unconsciousness.

The skin becomes very pale and the person may exhibit petechiae. Petechiae are tiny spots on the skin, which do not blanch when a glass tumbler is applied to the skin.

How is it diagnosed?

Septicaemia requires admission to an acute general hospital and may necessitate admission to an intensive care unit. The definitive test for diagnosing the condition is called a blood culture. This involves the taking of a small sample of blood and incubating it in the laboratory. If septicaemia is present bacteria will be detected and these can be studied further to establish which antibiotics will be effective against them.

How is it treated?

Septicaemia is a rapidly progressive condition and the sufferer usually looks very ill even to the non-medical person. If the person does not receive urgent medical care the condition can evolve very rapidly into irreversible toxic shock.

Septicaemia usually requires intravenous treatment. This facilitates the speedy administration of antibiotics and other drugs. Intravenous fluids also help to maintain the blood pressure.

It is necessary to begin antibiotic treatment while waiting for the blood culture results. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are usually used, which are antibiotics that are effective against a wide variety of bacteria. Once the results of the blood culture are available the antibiotic being prescribed may be changed to one more specific for the particular bacteria causing the septicaemia.

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