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Sepsis in children

Posted: 27/07/2022

There have been a number of cases reported recently of children tragically passing away from sepsis. However, many of us do not know exactly what sepsis is, how to spot it, and why it affects children in particular.

Why does sepsis occur?

Sepsis is the term used for one of the body’s reactions to infection. When an infection causes an extreme chain reaction in the body, this can lead to tissue damage, organ failure and death.

According to charity The UK Sepsis Trust (UKST), there are approximately 25,000 hospital admissions for children with sepsis per year in the UK. Although it is not yet understood why some people suffer sepsis and others do not, it is known that those of a very young or very old age are more susceptible due to their weaker immune systems.

Treatment for sepsis

The NHS website makes it clear that sepsis needs to be treated in a hospital straight away to prevent it from causing organ failure. They also explain that antibiotics should be given within one hour of arriving at a hospital.

Treatment could include admission to an intensive care unit and surgery may be required to remove areas of infection. Sepsis can require hospitalisation for several weeks and it has been estimated that 40% of sepsis survivors suffer permanent, life changing after effects. One such effect can come in the form of post-sepsis syndrome, which can cause fatigue, lack of appetite, frequent illness and changes in mood.

Sepsis and clinical negligence

Sepsis needs to be treated extremely promptly and this means that even a short delay in treatment can be fatal.

Sadly, many of the cases reported in the press lately have involved deaths that could have been avoided. This can be the case where sepsis was either not considered appropriately or perhaps treated too late. Penningtons Manches Cooper recently brought a claim for failures in the treatment of a 14 year old girl who presented with diarrhoea, abnormal breathing and a temperature. Despite these clear potential signs of an infection, she was not provided the proper antibiotic treatment in time, and she sadly passed away.

Spotting the signs

It is therefore very important to be familiar with the signs of sepsis in your child. The UKST outlines how to spot sepsis in children. A child may have sepsis if they:

  • Are breathing very fast.
  • Have a fit or convulsion.
  • Look mottled, bluish or pale.
  • Have a rash that does not fade upon pressing it.
  • Are very lethargic or difficult to wake.
  • Feel abnormally cold to touch.

A child under five may have sepsis if they:

  • Are not feeding.
  • Vomit repeatedly.
  • Have not passed urine for 12 hours.

The charity advises anyone who observes such symptoms to call 999 or go straight to A&E, making sure to specifically ask ‘could it be sepsis?’.

The risk of sepsis should very much be front of mind when considering the symptoms listed above, particularly in children and those who are vulnerable. We echo the UKST’s advice to seek medical attention urgently and immediately raise it as a concern with your child’s treating practitioner.

This article was co-written with Lara Wylder, trainee solicitor in the personal injury and clinical negligence team.

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