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World Sepsis Day: raising awareness to reduce the burden of sepsis

Posted: 13/09/2021

13 September 2021 is World Sepsis Day. At Penningtons Manches Cooper, our team of specialist sepsis solicitors regularly work with clients who are living with life-changing injuries as a result of sepsis, so we appreciate the importance of spreading awareness of the condition, particularly the signs to look out for to ensure timely diagnosis and treatment.

What is sepsis?

Sepsis occurs when the immune system overreacts to an infection. It is a life-threatening condition and without appropriate treatment it can lead to organ failure, tissue damage and even death. As sepsis can progress very quickly and result in devastating consequences, it is considered a medical emergency and needs to be diagnosed and treated quickly.

Although sepsis can be caused by viral or fungal infections, bacterial infections are by far the most common cause.

Sometimes the source of infection cannot be identified, but the most common types of infection which are associated with sepsis are:

  • pneumonia
  • appendicitis
  • peritonitis (abdomen)
  • urinary tract infection
  • cholecystitis (gallbladder)
  • cellulitis (skin)
  • meningitis
  • post-surgical infection
  • endocarditis (heart)

Anyone can develop sepsis, particularly after an injury or minor infection. Some people are more vulnerable, including people over 75 years of age, babies under 12 months, people with diabetes or a weakened immune system, or those who have recently had surgery, a serious illness or recently given birth.

What are the symptoms of sepsis?

Spotting sepsis can be difficult as the symptoms can sometimes look like less sinister conditions such as flu, gastroenteritis or a chest infection. They can also vary between adults and children.

Symptoms in adults:

  • temperature / fever
  • slurred speech or confusion
  • shivering or muscle pain
  • not passing urine
  • severe breathlessness
  • mottled or discoloured skin
  • reduced appetite
  • diarrhoea and vomiting

Symptoms in children:

  • fast breathing
  • having a fit or convulsion
  • looking mottled, bluish or pale
  • a rash that does not fade when pressed
  • feeling lethargic
  • feeling abnormally cold to touch
  • not feeding
  • vomiting repeatedly
  • not passing urine for 12 hours
  • crying at a higher pitch or being quieter than usual

How is sepsis diagnosed and treated?

There is no one test for sepsis so the diagnosis is usually made by taking a detailed medical history and looking for signs of:

  • an increased heart rate
  • an increased respiratory rate
  • low blood pressure
  • a high temperature
  • recent surgery or illness

If sepsis is suspected, some additional tests should be performed, including:

  • blood tests, which cannot diagnose sepsis, but the results can help identify infection. Specific blood tests include a complete blood count (CBC) which measures the number of circulating white blood cells that fight infection and a higher number of white blood cells can indicate infection. High lactate levels can be an important indicator of sepsis as organs produce lactic acid when they do not have enough oxygen which can happen if someone has a serious infection. The body produces C-reactive protein when there is inflammation so a high CRP can also show there is infection;
  • blood cultures can be used to identify the type of bacteria or fungi causing an infection;
  • monitoring urine output;
  • additional testing for specific infections may be needed which can include performing an X-ray, a CT scan, MRI or a lumbar puncture.

As sepsis is a medical emergency, treatment should be initiated by the medical team within an hour of sepsis being suspected.

Treatment for sepsis can vary depending on the initial source of the infection, which organs are affected and the extent of the damage caused by the time of diagnosis. First-line treatment includes rapid administration of oxygen, antibiotics and fluids.

As the initial source of the infection is not always clear, physicians usually prescribe broad-spectrum antibiotics which work against several of the more common types of bacteria. These antibiotics are often administered intravenously (IV), rather than orally to ensure they reach the blood system quickly and efficiently. To prevent potential damage from sepsis, IV fluids are also administered to stabilise the blood pressure and reduce the risk of septic shock. It is also important to try to identify and treat the source of initial infection.

What types of claims relate to the treatment of sepsis?

All primary care practitioners (GPs, paramedics, A&E staff and out of hours services) should be aware of the early signs of sepsis as it is a medical emergency and urgent action is required in order to prevent long-term consequences.

For a medical negligence claim to succeed, the two-part legal test must be satisfied. Firstly, patients must be able to show breach of duty, which means that the care provided fell below a reasonable standard, such that it would not be supported by a responsible body of medical practitioners in that field. Secondly, they must be able to show that this negligent treatment has caused an injury or made their condition worse, known as causation.

Independent medical expert evidence is required to confirm both breach of duty and causation. To do this, medical experts will be asked to consider the patient’s medical records, but they will also consider other sources of information such as their account of events as well as relevant guidelines, policies and procedures.

Common sepsis claims include:

  • failure to identify early signs of sepsis;
  • inadequate assessment or examination;
  • failure or delay in referring to hospital;
  • delays in starting adequate treatment.

How long will a claim take?

Clinical negligence cases can take time. This is partly because they are dependent on obtaining medical reports from practising clinicians and partly because of the complexity of the issues involved.

Sepsis claims may be particularly complicated given how quickly the condition can progress. For those left seriously disabled, it is not always possible to value and settle a sepsis claim until the long-term prognosis is known.

In some cases, negligence is admitted relatively early and it may be possible to obtain an interim payment (which is an early payment of some of the damages) to fund any treatment needed, or pay for support, such as physiotherapy or assistance from a paid carer, whilst the case is still ongoing.

While the claim will be progressed as quickly as possible, most cases take two to three years until they are concluded.

What are the time limits for making a sepsis compensation claim?

Time limits apply to all medical negligence claims and generally speaking claimants have three years from the date the negligence occurred to make a claim. Sometimes the period starts to run a little later than the actual date of the negligence, namely the first point at which they became aware that the treatment they received may have been negligent. If someone has passed away due to sepsis, the three year limitation period starts to run from the date of death.

In cases involving children (those below the age of 18), the three-year time limit begins from the date of the child’s 18th birthday. For cases involving patients who lack capacity to litigate, due to mental rather than physical impairment, the time limit may not apply.

Our advice is to investigate potential sepsis claims as soon as possible to avoid limitation becoming a barrier.

Why bring a claim for compensation?

Sepsis can result in serious and life changing injuries, including the loss of one of more limbs, and long-term health problems such as post-sepsis syndrome.  

Bringing a successful claim and receiving compensation can make a real difference to a patient’s quality of life as funds are often claimed for the following:

  • lost earnings and loss of future pension;
  • private treatment which may involve surgery, various types of therapy (including psychological therapy) and medication;
  • care and domestic assistance;
  • home alterations;
  • aids and equipment; and
  • additional travel, holiday and leisure costs.

Sadly, sepsis cases can also result in death. If there are concerns about the care someone has received, the executor of their estate and/or their dependants may be able to bring a claim for compensation.

Meet the sepsis team

We have a dedicated team specialising in sepsis claims:

We speak to many people who have been affected by sepsis, particularly those who have not been diagnosed or treated in time to prevent significant long-term injuries. As the symptoms of sepsis can be similar to more common and less severe conditions, it is really important for us to work alongside charities such as the UK Sepsis Trust in order to help spread awareness of the condition, particularly the signs to look out for and when to seek help.

If you or a family member have concerns about the care provided for sepsis, please get in touch with our specialist sepsis team for a free, no obligation discussion. Please call us on 0800 328 9545, email us at or contact a member of the sepsis team directly.

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