Despite cases increasing, until recently sepsis wasn’t on the radar for most of us. Liz Bennett, 55, a former NHS risk assessment officer, developed the deadly condition in December 2016 as a result of a UTI. Here, she tells the story of what happened:
Just before I was due to fly away on holiday I started needing the loo a lot. Although I was uncomfortable, I wasn’t in pain, so I didn’t think it could turn into anything serious.
Over the next two weeks I began to feel increasingly fatigued and unwell. In retrospect, it seems obvious it was the UTI, but I just assumed that I’d picked up a virus.
On the 14-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur back to the UK I developed severe shivering [called rigors]. I couldn’t stop shaking and felt nauseous.
Once home, I slept most of the time and couldn’t eat or drink.
I’d organised a reunion dinner for two days after my return, and felt I had to go. I don’t remember how I got there but my friends took one look at me and insisted I go to A&E.
I imagined I’d be sent home with antibiotics, but once there I collapsed. I was breathless and disorientated, felt sick and had slurred speech. I remember thinking I was dying.
I think what saved me was the fact that I’d worked at the hospital so the staff knew what I was normally like and quickly realised I was seriously ill.
They suspected my UTI had caused sepsis and put me on broad-spectrum IV antibiotics and fluids.
Microbiology test results a few days later revealed my infection had been caused by E.coli. I spent two weeks in hospital and was told later that I’d come very close to dying.
Then I had post-sepsis syndrome – nausea and exhaustion for six months.
I’ve had to push myself to relearn everything. I’m now working again, but it took me a long time to get over what happened.
Jo Waters explains why knowing the symptoms and getting early treatment if you spot them could make all the difference to your recovery:
Something as trivial as a minor cut or sore throat, or as common as a surgery wound, chest infection, stomach bug or urinary tract infection (UTI) can develop into life-threatening sepsis – and it’s a growing problem in the UK.
“Sepsis isn’t one disease, but the result of your body’s immune system going into overdrive in response to an infection or injury,” says Dr Ron Daniels, a consultant in critical care at Good Hope Hospital NHS Trust and chief executive of The UK Sepsis Trust.
“Normally our immune system fights off infection, but sometimes it starts attacking the body’s own tissues and organs, resulting in organ failure and death.”
Around 250,000 people in the UK develop sepsis every year, and it accounts for more than one in four intensive care admissions.
Yet the symptoms aren’t as well recognised as those of a heart attack or meningitis.
TV presenter Fern Britton, 61, is one high-profile celebrity who developed sepsis – in her case, as the result of an abscess following a hysterectomy to remove fibroids in 2016.
She suffered nausea, shivering, muscle and joint pain, and pneumonia.
“There’s been an eight to 13% increase per year over the past 10 years,” says Dr Daniels.
“Although part of this is down to greater awareness and a growing and ageing population, that doesn’t fully explain it.
“We believe it’s entirely plausible that the increase is at least partly fuelled by the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.
“This is why it’s so vital that people recognise the signs so they can be treated with the right type of antibiotics as early as possible.”
On the positive side, despite incidents of sepsis being on the increase, survival rates are also improving thanks to greater awareness of the symptoms among medics.
“In the past 10 years, the survival rate for sepsis has increased from 70 to 80%,” confirms Dr Daniels.
Part of this is down to greater awareness among the public, too. A survey of 2,800 people by The UK Sepsis Trust found awareness of the condition had increased from 13.2% in 2012 to 58.4% in 2017.
“We estimate around 9,000 lives a year have been saved as a result of greater awareness, and the UK is now the most advanced country in the world when it comes to awareness of sepsis symptoms,” says Dr Daniels.
He hopes the tell-tale signs of sepsis will become as universally recognised as those of heart attack or stroke.
“Although sepsis can be deadly, it’s curable with antibiotics, and the earlier the symptoms are recognised, the greater the chances of survival.”
Could it be sepsis?
Anyone can develop sepsis from an infection or injury, but those at highest risk are babies and older people, those with chronic and serious illnesses, such as diabetes or cancer, and people with an impaired immune system.
Seek urgent medical help if you or someone else develops any of these signs:
Slurred speech or confusion
Extreme shivering or muscle pain
Passing no urine over the course of a day
You feel as if you’re going to die
Skin is mottled or discoloured
If your child is unwell and has either a fever or a very low temperature (or has had a fever in the past 24 hours), seek urgent medical help and ask, “Could they have sepsis?” A child may have sepsis if he or she:
Is breathing very fast
Has a fit or convulsion
Looks mottled, blue or pale
Has a rash that does not fade when you press it
Is very lethargic and difficult to wake
Feels abnormally cold to touch
A child under five may have sepsis if he or she:
Is not feeding
Is vomiting repeatedly
Has not passed urine for 12 hours
- Go to sepsistrust.org for more information
- This feature is from February’s issue of Healthy Food Guide (in supermarkets and WHSmith). Go to healthyfood.co.uk for subscriptions