People urged to know signs of sepsis

Primary cause of death from infection
  • Deborah Condon

People are being urged to familiarise themselves with the signs and symptoms of the potentially fatal condition, sepsis.

This month is Sepsis Awareness Month and according to the HSE, one in five people who develop the condition will die. However, the risk of death can be reduced if it is recognised and treated early.

Sepsis occurs when the body has an abnormal response to an infection or injury, which results in the body's immune system attacking its own tissues and organs.

Sepsis can develop from any type of infection and can affect people of all ages, although it is more common in very young children, older people and those with pre-existing medical conditions or a weakened immune system.

According to the HSE, it is a global healthcare problem, which remains the primary cause of death from infection, despite advances in modern medicine like antibiotics and intensive care.

It is more common than heart attack, and claims more lives than any cancer, even in the most developed countries.

The condition can be difficult to diagnose and according to HSE sepsis programme clinical lead, Dr Martina Healy, the most effective way to reduce death from the condition is by prevention - good sanitation, personal hygiene, eating a healthy diet, exercising moderately, breastfeeding, avoiding unnecessary antibiotics and getting vaccinated against preventable illnesses.

"The next most effective way is early recognition and treatment. This is not simple. Sepsis evolves over time and the pace of its development depends on the patient's general health status, their genetic response to infection and the characteristics of the infection.

"Thus, the patient's characteristics (e.g. age, existing medical conditions, medications) can impact on the pattern of presentation. The body's response and the causing bug also play a part on the clinical course of the illness," Dr Healy explained.

Former Ireland international footballer, Stephen Carr, lost his mother to sepsis last year. She was a fit and healthy 64-year-old, who caught the flu "and wasn't really shaking it off".

Over the course of a week, her health deteriorated and by the time she got to hospital, she was diagnosed with sepsis.

"Doctors did everything they could, but it was just too late. I think you have to question everything if you're not getting better. You have to ask ‘have I got sepsis now?'"

Audrey McGahon from Co Clare experienced every parent's nightmare when her daughter, Molly, became seriously ill with sepsis.

Molly had come home from school one day complaining of a pain in her back. She had a very high temperature and she was sleepy. Having brought her daughter to the GP, Ms McGahon then decided to go to the Emergency Department as Molly was getting sleepier but was also experiencing increased pain.

When Molly arrived at the hospital a few hours later, she was diagnosed with septic shock by a nurse who recognised the symptoms. She was transferred to Temple Street Children's Hospital.

"She'd gone into renal failure. All her organs basically were being attacked at the same time. We were told to prepare ourselves, that she didn't have long, so every minute and every beep from every machine seemed like a lifetime and that's how the first four to five days went. Molly was intubated for 21 days," Ms McGahon recalls.

Molly recovered but lives with life altering challenges as a result.

"Our message to families, parents and children out there is don't take any chances. There were no huge warnings so just don't wait," Ms McGahon said.

The most commonly reported symptoms of sepsis include:
-Slurred speech, confusion
-Excessive sleepiness or drowsiness
-Pain or discomfort in the muscles or joints
-Passing very little or no urine
-Severe breathlessness, a racing heart
-Shivering, fever, feeling very cold
-Feeling like you are going to die
-Skin changes like pale, cold, discoloured skin or a rash that will not fade when pressed on.

In children, the signs to look out for are:
-Abnormally cold to the touch
-Looks mottled, bluish or pale
-Breathing very fast
-Is unusually sleepy and difficult to wake
-Has a rash that does not fade when you press it
-Having fits or convulsions.

In children under the age of five, look out for:
-Not feeding
-Repeated vomiting
-Failing to produce a wet nappy in the last 12 hours.

The HSE is raising awareness of the condition as part of Sepsis Awareness Month and World Sepsis Day (September 13). For more information on the condition, click here.


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