Children can be vulnerable to sepsis, or blood poisoning, which kills 52,000 people each year in the UK alone. We advise on the vital signs and treatment.
Sepsis, often referred to as blood poisoning, is the result of the immune system over-reacting to an infection or injury. Each year, around 52,000 people die and 60,000 suffer permanent after-effects of sepsis in the UK. With early diagnosis, it can be treated with antibiotics, but if not treated immediately, sepsis can result in organ failure and death.
Blood poisoning occurs when bacteria causing infection in another part of the body enter the bloodstream. The terms septicaemia and sepsis are often used interchangeably, but technically they aren't quite the same—septicaemia, the state of having bacteria in your blood, can lead to sepsis.
The immune system usually works to fight any infection from bacteria, viruses or fungi, but for reasons which are not fully understood, it sometimes goes into overdrive and starts to attack organs and other tissues. This can happen as a response to any injury or infection, anywhere in the body. It can for instance result from:
- A chest infection causing pneumonia
- A urine infection in the bladder
- A problem in the abdomen, such as a burst ulcer or a hole in the bowel
- An infected cut or bite
- A wound from trauma or surgery
- A leg ulcer or cellulitis
Sepsis can be caused by a huge variety of different bacteria, such as streptococcus, e-coli, MRSA or C difficile. Most cases are caused by common bacteria which normally don’t make us ill.
Symtoms of Sepis In Children
Because the symptoms of sepsis can easily be mistaken for those of other conditions, it’s particularly important to understand the warning signs in children.
- Fast breathing
- Fits or convulsion
- Mottled, pale or blueish appearance
- Lethargy and sleepiness
- Cold to the touch
- Rash that does not fade when pressed
- Repeated vomiting
- Not feeding
- Does not pass urine for 12 hours
Source: UK Sepsis Trust
This year, Melissa Mead, who led high-profile campaigns to raise awareness of sepsis after the death of her son William in 2014, was awarded an MBE for her work.
William died from treatable blood poisoning—Melissa had taken him to the GP several times and been told not to worry, but William died just after his first birthday.
A 2016 report into William's death called for better recognition by GPs of the signs and symptoms of septicaemia, and more training for NHS 111 helpline advisers. The then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt apologised for failings in the system, and Melissa Mead went on to launch a campaign, with the UK Sepsis Trust, to help parents to spot signs of illness. As an ambassador for the charity UK Sepsis Trust, Melissa has created videos seen by 19 million people.
Millions of leaflets urging parents to take their child to A&E or call 999 if their child is displaying symptoms were delivered to GP surgeries and hospitals across the country, and an awareness video, in which Melissa held up cards detailing the symptoms of sepsis, was a key part of the campaign, and quickly went viral.
Since then the World Health Organization has adopted a resolution to improve sepsis care in all UN member states. A YouGov poll by the UK Sepsis Trust showed that awareness of the condition increased from 30 percent in 2014 to 70 percent in 2016.
Sepsis has also featured in storylines in popular TV and radio programmes including Holby City, Call the Midwife, Coronation Street and The Archers.
Dr Ron Daniels, CEO of the UK Sepsis Trust, praised Melissa's services for raising awareness of sepsis—he said: “Her capacity to turn her grief into something positive is an inspiration to us all.
People are more likely to develop sepsis after a viral illness like a cold, or a minor injury. But it can affect anyone, regardless of age or state of health. However, some people are more likely to get severe sepsis, including:
- The very young or very old.
- Steroid or cancer drug patients.
- Organ transplant patients or those on anti-rejection drugs.
- Anyone who is malnourished
- Sufferers from liver disease
- Anyone with an immune system disorder
- Post-operative patients
- Pregnant women or new mothers
To build awareness, World Sepsis Day is held on September 13th every year. In 2018, events included seminars for medical professionals, sport activities, photo exhibitions, fund-raising ‘pink picnics’, gala events, dinners, public events such as open houses in hospitals and healthcare facilities, and of course online events including the Second World Sepsis Congress, and campaigns on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and elsewhere.
The best protection against sepsis is to get immunisations, wash hands well and often and clean and care for cuts and scrapes. But if your child shows the symptoms of sepsis, it’s vital to get medical care, and if antibiotics are prescribed, give all doses exactly as directed.
Trust your instincts, and don’t be afraid to speak up—you know your child best. If your child seems sicker than usual to you, or has an infection that doesn't get better or gets worse, get medical help right away, and ask the doctor, "Could it be sepsis?"
If you want to learn more about sepsis, visit the websites for the UK Sepsis Trust and World Sepsis Day, both of which are taking a lead in raising awareness and promoting the fight against this number one cause of preventable death worldwide.
This feature was originally published in the summer edition of Healthy Child with Dr Ranj Singh, which you can also read here!