Being aware of the signs of sepsis and seeking early treatment could save a life.

Every 2.8 seconds in the world, someone dies of sepsis. That amounts to 11 million deaths a year, according to the Global Sepsis Alliance. In fact, one-fifth of all deaths worldwide are linked to sepsis, and many could have been prevented if the root infection were treated early. 

Sepsis occurs when your immune system, in trying to fight an infection, experiences an extreme response and begins attacking your body’s own tissues and organs. This can result in organ failure and death. Both bacterial and viral infections, as well as other microorganisms such as fungi and parasites, can lead to sepsis.

“It’s like a runaway train. There is no stopping sepsis if it’s not treated early,” says Mediclinic Southern Africa’s Clinical Quality Specialist Riani Retief. “Often, people suffering from sepsis only seek medical attention when it’s already too late, and by then it is very, very difficult to turn around. However, if treated early, sepsis is potentially reversible.”

What causes sepsis?

“Sepsis can be described as a continuum – beginning with an infection, and moving to sepsis, and finally turning life-threatening,” Retief explains. “The body’s normal response to dealing with an infection is to send in the ‘fighter pilots’, the antibodies in the form of white blood cells.” These cells react and, in most cases, help the body fight off the infection. But every now and then something happens to dysregulate that response. This causes uncontrolled inflammation and immunosuppression, ultimately leading to septic shock – a life-threatening dysfunction of organs such as the skin, soft tissue, lungs, heart, and others.

Critical signs of sepsis

Infections that lead to sepsis often start in the lungs, urinary tract, skin and gastrointestinal tract. Luckily the condition has clear symptoms so treatment can be initiated early:

Slurred speech or confusion

Extreme shivers or muscle pain/fever

Passing no urine all day

Severe breathlessness

It feels like you are going to die

Skin that is mottled or discoloured

Who is most at risk?

“People with weakened immune systems, as well as people over the age of 60 and children under the age of one year are more susceptible to sepsis,” Retief says.   

Patients with chronic lung, liver or heart disease, AIDS, and diabetes are also vulnerable, as are those taking immunosuppressive drugs for diseases like cancer, systemic lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or multiple sclerosis. Those who don’t have a spleen are also at high risk of sepsis because the spleen purifies the blood and produces the infection-fighting white blood cells.

The role of hygiene in sepsis prevention

The primary way to prevent sepsis is to prevent infection in the first place by practising basic hygiene and good sanitation.

“Hygienic living starts with proper hand hygiene and the proper management of food and water we consume,” Retief says. “Mediclinic Southern Africa has a very strong culture of infection, prevention and control (IPC), and handwashing forms an integral part of this. One good spin-off from the COVID-19 pandemic was that people became more aware of good hand hygiene – in other words, washing with proper soap or alcohol-based hand rub containing at least 70% alcohol.

“As nurses, we usually recommend that people should wash their hands with water and soap when they’re visibly soiled; otherwise, a good alcohol-based hand rub will suffice. With handwashing, it’s all about the mechanics. It’s not just the soap or alcohol itself that is used, but the mechanical movement of the hands and fingers that assists in cleaning.”

Remember, a simple act like keeping your hands clean can help save lives.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.