Information for consumers and health professionals

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that arises when the body’s response to an infection damages its own tissues and organs. Early recognition of sepsis and urgent treatment can save lives and prevent disability. Sepsis can be difficult to predict and diagnose.

If identified early, sepsis is usually treatable

Signs of sepsis in adults

Adults can experience one or more of the following signs:

  • fast breathing or breathlessness
  • fever and chills
  • low body temperature
  • low or no urine output
  • fast or slow heartbeat
  • nausea and vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • fatigue, confusion or sleepiness
  • a lot of pain or ‘feeling worse than ever’
  • headache
  • a new rash, discoloured or clammy sweaty skin.

Signs of sepsis in children and babies

Children and babies can experience one or more of the following signs:

  • fast breathing or long pauses in breathing
  • blotchy or discoloured skin
  • skin abnormally cold to touch
  • rash that does not fade when pressed
  • infrequent wet nappies or low urine output
  • drowsiness, difficulty waking up or confusion
  • restlessness or floppy limbs
  • vomiting
  • fits or convulsions
  • a lot of unexplained pain
  • high or very low body temperature
  • persistent vomiting and not feeding or eating
  • baby with bulging anterior fontanelle (soft spot in the skull)
  • high-pitched cry.

What causes sepsis?

Sepsis occurs when the body’s response to an infection becomes harmful. Infection causes the immune system to release chemicals into the blood to fight the infection. These chemicals can cause generalised inflammation in the body causing blood vessels to leak and form blood clots. These changes can damage the body’s organs.

Almost any type of infection can lead to sepsis, including infections of the lungs, abdomen (such as appendicitis), urinary tract, skin, or other parts of the body. Many different organisms can cause sepsis, including bacteria, fungi and viruses, but bacteria are the most common.

Treating sepsis

Sepsis requires urgent medical treatment, usually in hospital. Some patients will require treatment in an intensive care unit.

Treatment of sepsis includes the prompt administration of antibiotics, identification and management of sepsis source, intravenous fluid therapy and organ system support, as required.

Health professionals should manage sepsis as per local protocols.

Am I at risk of sepsis?

Anyone can develop sepsis, however people at high risk include children, infants, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems. People with chronic illness, such as diabetes, Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), cancer and kidney or liver disease, are also at increased risk, as well as people who have experienced a severe burn, physical trauma, those with weakened immune systems, people aged over 65 years and pregnant or recently pregnant people.

People and families affected by sepsis

Listen to Fiona who is a sepsis survivor and advocate and shares her personal journey which includes why it is important to spread the word about sepsis.

Sepsis awareness resources for consumers and healthcare workers have been developed by the Australian Commission for Safety and Quality (ACSQHC).

Also, support services such as Sepsis Australia provide information and assistance to people with sepsis and their families at all stages of treatment and recovery.

National Sepsis Clinical Care Standard

The Sepsis Clinical Care Standard provides guidance to clinicians and health service organisations when investigating and managing sepsis, and information to consumers about the care they can expect to receive.

To help healthcare services implement Sepsis Clinical Care Standard, the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care (ACSQHC) has released a Self-Assessment tool and Indicator Monitoring tool.

Further information

For further information on the prevention of healthcare associated infections contact SA Health's Communicable Disease Control Branch on 1300 252 272.