Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that arises when the body’s response to an infection damages its own tissues and organs. It can lead to septic shock, failure of multiple organs, and death. 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 doesn’t 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.

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 infections can lead to sepsis, including infections of the lungs, abdomen (such as appendicitis), urinary tract, skin, or other parts of the body.

Treating sepsis

Sepsis requires urgent medical treatment, usually in hospital.

Am I at risk of sepsis?

Anyone can develop sepsis, however children, infants, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are most vulnerable. People with chronic illness, such as diabetes, AIDS, cancer and kidney or liver disease, are also at increased risk, as well as people who have experienced a severe burn or physical trauma.

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.

The Australian Commission for Safety and Quality (ACSQHC) has developed sepsis awareness resources which includes a Sepsis Consumer Fact Sheet and Sepsis Slide Show.

Further information

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