Thousands of people in the UK die or are left with life-changing injuries every year owing to cases of sepsis that have gone undiagnosed, campaigners and nursing leaders have said. A serious complication of an infection, such as an infected cut, sepsis can lead to multiple organ failure and even death if not treated urgently.
It affects 250,000 of us every year and leads to 52,000 fatalities - more than breast, bowel and prostate cancer combined, according to Dr Ron Daniels, CEO of the UK Sepsis Trust. "There are some key signs of sepsis which are: slurred speech or confusion, severe breathlessness, and mottled or discoloured skin," he says. What makes it particularly hard to spot is the fact that symptoms are often similar to other illnesses.
NHS bosses have been accused by nurse leaders and campaigners of inaction by not ordering hospitals to produce a standardised checklist to help medical professionals spot the warning signs of the deadly disease. If it is caught early, patients can make a full recovery after a course of antibiotics. But if left untreated it can lead to organ failure, loss of limbs and even death as the body’s immune system reverses and starts to attack organs and tissue.
"Whenever there are signs of infection (an infection can be caused by anything from a small cut or insect bite to a chest infection or urinary tract infection) it's crucial that members of the public seek medical attention urgently and just ask 'could it be sepsis?'" says Dr Daniels. "With every hour that passes before the right antibiotics are administered, risk of death increases."
Tom Ray contracted sepsis aged 38 in 1999 after a cut on his gum after a trip to the dentist became infected. His sepsis came on rapidly leading to vomiting and high temperature. When he visited the hospital, it took doctors five hours to diagnose his condition, but by then he was seriously ill. He remained in a coma for months and woke to find his limbs had been amputated and needed plastic surgery to reconstruct his face as the sepsis had attacked his skin tissue. He now uses prosthetic limbs. His story was made into a film in 2016 called Starfish, featuring Tom Riley and Joanne Froggatt.
Speaking at an event at the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) today, he said doctors had missed the “classic signs of sepsis” before he deteriorated and called for better training for NHS nurses to spot the signs early.
According to the UK Sepsis Trust, there are at least 250,000 cases of sepsis in the UK each year and 1,000 to 4,000 child deaths relating to the disease. It is particularly hard to catch quickly in children because the symptoms worsen dramatically in a matter of hours. The RCN has called for the NHS to reduce child deaths by implementing a national early warning system for identifying children whose health is deteriorating rapidly.
What are the warning signs of sepsis?
Symptoms of sepsis in adults, according to the NHS.
- Slurred speech
- Extreme shivering or muscle pain
- Passing no urine in a day
- Severe breathlessness
- "I feel like I might die"
- Skin mottled or discoloured
Symptoms of sepsis in young children
- Looks mottled, bluish or pale
- Very lethargic or difficult to wake
- Abnormally cold to touch
- Breathing very fast
- A rash that does not fade when you press it
- A seizure or convulsion
For more on the s ymptoms of sepsis, visit the NHS website here.