Sepsis: Symptoms And Treatment For Condition Behind One In Five Deaths Globally

One in three people don't know the signs of sepsis – are you one of them?

Sepsis is thought to be responsible for one in five deaths worldwide, according to a study published in The Lancet – killing more people than cancer. Yet the condition is largely preventable and treatable, say experts.

Researchers from University of Pittsburgh and University of Washington revealed there were 48.9 million global cases of sepsis in 2017 and 11 million deaths, representing one in five deaths worldwide.

Survival rates were worse in poorer countries, with a disproportionately high number of children in these areas battling sepsis, the research found. More than 40% of all cases occurred in children under five.

“We are alarmed to find sepsis deaths are much higher than previously estimated, especially as the condition is both preventable and treatable,” said Dr Mohsen Naghavi, the study’s senior author and a professor from the University of Washington School of Medicine.

“We need renewed focus on sepsis prevention among newborns and on tackling antimicrobial resistance, an important driver of the condition.”

Elena Sharipova via Getty Images

What is sepsis?

Sepsis is a serious complication of an infection, which occurs when the body’s immune system overreacts and begins attacking organs and tissues. It can lead to multiple organ failure and death if it is not spotted in time.

The infection can occur following chest or water infections, problems in the abdomen like burst ulcers, or simple skin injuries like cuts and bites, suggests The Sepsis Trust. The number of people developing sepsis is increasing, with around 250,000 cases each year in the UK and an estimated 52,000 deaths associated with the condition.

Symptoms of sepsis

It can initially be confused with other ailments such as flu, gastroenteritis or a chest infection. Additionally, more than a third of UK adults can’t name any symptoms of sepsis – and seven million people have never heard of it, a survey by The Case Files Podcast found.

Early symptoms include:

:: A high temperature (fever) or low body temperature
:: Chills and shivering
:: Fast heartbeat
:: Fast breathing

People should seek medical help urgently if they develop any of the following:

:: Slurred speech
:: Extreme shivering or muscle pain
:: Unable to pass urine (in a day)
:: Severe breathlessness
:: Mottled or discoloured skin

Dr Tom Connor, a microbiologist for SIRU and honouree consultant with Public Health Wales, said people should be particularly vigilant of symptoms such as dizziness or shortness of breath.


With sepsis, early detection is vital. If it hasn’t yet affected a person’s organs, it may be possible to treat with antibiotics at home.

Dr Jane Fenton May, vice chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs in Wales, said people should monitor symptoms and seek advice if they are worried.

“It is a difficult call,” she previously told the BBC. “It is best to get advice rather than rock up to casualty, you may just end up sitting in a waiting room and deteriorating there.”

A person should seek urgent medical advice if they have recently had an infection or injury and are showing possible early signs of sepsis.

If a person is experiencing any of the more severe symptoms, such as slurred speech or severe breathlessness, they should go straight to A&E or call 999.

At this point, most people will be admitted to hospital and may even need to be sent to an intensive care unit.

Because of problems with vital organs, people with severe sepsis are likely to be very ill and the condition can be fatal, according to NHS Choices.