Septicaemia or blood poisoning, is a potentially life-threating infection caused by large amounts of bacteria entering the bloodstream. Here we discuss what it is, and the symptoms and treatment of septicaemia.
What is septicaemia?
Septicaemia is also called blood poisoning. It happens when a bacterial infection enters the bloodstream from somewhere else in the body, like the lungs or urinary tract (NHS, 2016a; Healthline, 2018).
As the bloodstream can carry the infecting bacteria and their toxins throughout the body, septicaemia can quickly become dangerous. If caught early, antibiotics at home might treat it but more severe cases must be treated in hospital (GOSH, 2011).
What are the symptoms of septicaemia?
The immune system’s attempts to fight the infection causes symptoms such as:
- a high temperature
- chills and shivering
- rapid, shallow breathing
- extreme fatigue
- feeling faint
- pale, clammy skin
- pinprick spots on the skin, or large purple areas that stay the same colour if you roll a glass over them (see below for the glass test).
The pinprick spots or large purple areas are often seen in a type of blood poisoning that meningococcal bacteria causes, called meningococcal septicaemia. Meningococcal bacteria can also cause meningitis (GOSH, 2011).
If your child has any of the symptoms of septicaemia, get medical help straight away (GOSH, 2011). Make sure you don't wait until a rash develops – trust your instincts (NHS, 2016b).
How is septicaemia treated?
If blood poisoning is diagnosed early and it hasn’t affected any internal organs, it can be treated with oral antibiotics (GOSH, 2011).
If it’s severe your child might need to intravenous antibiotics in hospital (GOSH, 2011). If it’s particularly serious, medication for low blood pressure and machines to support organ function might be needed (GOSH, 2011).
What is sepsis?
If septicaemia is not treated, it can turn into sepsis. This is where the reaction to the infection affects the whole body (Patient, 2016; Healthline, 2018).
If your child has ANY of the following symptoms, go straight to A&E or call 999 for an ambulance:
- mottled, pale, blue-tinged skin
- very lethargic or you’re having trouble waking them
- they feel cold when you touch them
- very fast breathing
- a rash that doesn’t fade when pressed
- they have a fit or convulsion
If your child has ANY of the symptoms as follows, you must seek urgent medical advice from NHS 111:
- A high temperature of above 38⁰C for babies under three months and 39⁰C from three to six months, or any high temperature if your child is showing no interest in anything.
- A low temperature of under 36⁰C when checked three times during 10 minutes.
- They’re having trouble breathing, making grunting noises, are unable to say more than a few words when they normally talk more, or have pauses in their breathing.
- They haven’t had a wee for 12 hours.
- They haven’t fed for more than eight hours despite being awake, or if your baby is under one month old and is disinterested in feeding.
- They’re being sick with green, bloody or black vomit.
- Your baby’s soft spot is bulging.
- Their eyes seem sunken.
- They’re disinterested in everything, or they’re not responding or they’re irritable.
- They’re weak, floppy, whining or crying continuously.
- They have a stiff neck, particularly when they look up and down.
If you suspect your child has sepsis, get medical advice fast (NHS, 2016a).
Sepsis affects blood flow, and can cause a life-threatening drop in blood pressure, which prevents oxygen from reaching vital organs (NHS, 2016a; Healthline, 2018).
What is septic shock?
People with dangerously low blood pressure from the inflammation have what’s called septic shock (GOSH, 2011; Healthline, 2018). Septic shock can be treated but it’s a very serious condition that people can die from.
The glass test
If you find a blotchy rash that does not fade when you press a glass firmly over it, this is a typical symptom of meningitis. Yet this symptom doesn't always develop (NHS, 2016b).
This rash can also be more difficult to see on darker skin. So check paler areas, like the tummy, the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, inside the eyelids, and the roof of the mouth, for spots (NHS, 2016b).
The rash often starts off looking like small, red pinpricks. You would then see it spread quickly and turn into red or purple blotches. A non-fading rash seen under a clear glass firmly pressed against the skin is a sign of septicaemia caused by meningitis (NHS, 2016b).
You must get medical advice for your child immediately if you find this rash on them.
This page was last reviewed in May 2018.
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Trust your instincts. Meningitis, septicaemia and sepsis are medical emergencies. Call 999 for an ambulance or go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department if you think you or your child might be seriously ill.
GOSH (Great Ormond Street Hospital) (2011) Septicaemia. Available at: https://www.gosh.nhs.uk/conditions-and-treatments/conditions-we-treat/septicaemia [accessed 8th May 2018].
Healthline (2018) Septicemia. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/septicemia [accessed 8th May 2018].
NHS Choices (2016a) Sepsis. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/sepsis/ [accessed 8th May 2018].
NHS Choices (2016b) Meningitis. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/meningitis/ [accessed 8th May 2018].
Patient (2016) Sepsis. Septicaemia. Available at: https://patient.info/health/sepsis-septicaemia-leaflet [accessed 8th May 2018].