Sepsis: what every parent needs to know

Babies and young children are among those most at risk of this serious infection. Make sure you know the possible signs...

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Sepsis (or ‘blood poisoning’) is often called the ‘silent killer’ and it’s easy to see why: it’s a potentially life-threatening condition that affects about 10,000 children in the UK every year (and 140,000 adults) but it’s incredibly hard to spot in its early stages as its first symptoms are often vague and/or similar to the symptoms of many other less serious conditions.

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This means it’s all too easy for medical professionals initially to miss the signs of sepsis – especially in a child – as they did in the tragic case of William Mead, who died in 2014 at the age of 1, despite his mother taking him repeatedly to the doctor, and calling both her local out-of-hours medical service and the NHS urgent care helpline 111.

Thankfully, just recently (July 2016), the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) has urged medial professionals to keep sepsis front of mind when seeing patients, and the NHS has asked doctors to listen more closely to parents when the parents are telling them a sick child’s health is getting worse.

And, as William Mead’s mother, Melissa, says, every parent needs to know about sepsis and its signs, too. “If I had known what sepsis was,” she says, “I would have looked at William’s symptoms and known collectively, ‘Wow, that is sepsis’. I would have made a very different decision to the one I made. This needs to happen everywhere.” 

So, what is sepsis?

Sepsis happens when bacteria get into your bloodstream and your body overreacts to the infection and starts attacking itself, rather than the cause of the infection, causing inflammation, swelling and blood clotting.

The bacteria that get into the bloodstream could be the ones that cause meningitis or a chest or bladder infection, or they could enter the bloodstream through a nick in the skin caused by a cut or insect bite.

The body’s overreaction to the infection can lead to a significant decrease in blood pressure, reducing the blood supply to vital organs such as the brain, heart and kidneys. If sepsis is not spotted and treated with antibiotics, it can lead to shock, multiple organ failure and death.

Babies (particularly those under 3 months) and young children are among the groups most at risk of sepsis.

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What are the symptoms of sepsis in a baby or young child?

Sepsis is notoriously hard to diagnose because the early symptoms are so vague but the UK Sepsis Trust advises that you should be on your guard for the possibility of sepsis developing if your child:

  • Has a fever
  • Has an abnormally low temperature
  • Has had a high temperature in the previous 24 hours

In addition, you should know that any child under the age of 5 could have sepsis if he or she:

  • Has not been drinking (or taking breast or formula milk) for more than 8 hours. Or if he or she is a newborn (under 1 month) and shows no interest in feeding at all. RED FLAG SIGN
  • Has been vomiting repeatedly for over 24 hours RED FLAG SIGN
  • Has not had a wee or wet nappy for more than 12 hours RED FLAG SIGN
  • Has a rash or mottled/marbled skin or skin that’s gone pale or blue RED FLAG SIGN
  • Has cold or clammy skin RED FLAG SIGN
  • Has very rapid breathing and a quick heartbeat RED FLAG SIGN
  • Seems floppy, abnormally listless, ‘out of it’ or just ‘not right’ RED FLAG SIGN

If you spot any of these symptoms in your child, seek medical help immediately; if you spot a red flag sign, go straight to A&E.

One mum, whose baby daughter Chloe had sepsis, took to Facebook to share a video of her daughter’s rapid breathing – a major clue something was seriously wrong – to help other parents identify the symptoms.

Little Chloe’s stomach looks like it’s being drawn in, and you can hear she’s making a grunting sound. You can listen and watch the full video on Katie’s Facebook page

“This is Chloe at 3.53pm on Tuesday 16th January,” mum Katie Goulbourn wrote in her public Facebook post.

“By 5pm she was in resuscitation with 10+ medical professionals doing everything to keep her alive.

“Watching this video brings back all the fear from that night, however if I had known the symptoms that Chloe was displaying that afternoon were life threatening, I could of acted quicker.”

Fortunately, Katie was able to get Chloe treatment in time, and after a touch and go week in hospital, she’s now home and doing well.

Don’t be embarrassed to seek medical help

Don’t feel embarrassed about seeking medical help – and doing so more than once if you’re worried and you feel your child’s health has deteriorated since he or she last saw a doctor.

One of our mums here at MFM HQ did just this when her 8-week-old baby was floppy, listless and didn’t want to feed. An out-of-hours doctor told her to give the baby Calpol and ring again if things didn’t improve.

But she just knew, in a way she couldn’t put a finger on, that something wasn’t right, and she went straight to A&E instead.

“I felt a bit of a fool when I turned up,” she says now. “I thought they’d all laugh at me for being a hysterical mum but they took one look at my baby and put him straight on an IV drip. He did have sepsis but they treated it early and he got through it. I was so grateful I’d listened to my instincts.”  

“Parents do need to trust their gut instinct when seeking medical help for their child,” adds Louise Whittle, Operations and Fundraising Manager at the Parents’ Association for Seriously Ill Children.

“They have ‘expert’ knowledge of what is ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’ behaviour and it is vital that the clinical teams respect and listen to them, treating this parental knowledge with the same importance as test results and opinions of doctors and nurses.”

If you’d like a more detailed symptoms list, as well as help describing the symptoms to a doctor, you can download Spotting Sepsis in Children, a special leaflet for parents from the UK Sepsis Trust.

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