Watchdog urges sepsis to be treated as urgently as a heart attack

Thomas Tagg, who died of sepsis
Thomas Tagg, who died of sepsis

Sepsis should be treated as an emergency in the same way as heart attacks, a watchdog has said.

Doctors and nurses should treat people who show signs of sepsis with the same urgency as those who say they have chest pain the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), said today.

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that occurs when the body’s immune system goes into overdrive as it tries to fight an infection. It is often called septicaemia or blood poisoning.

According to the UK Sepsis Trust, there are around 150,000 cases of sepsis in the UK each year and 44,000 deaths.

In its new guidance, Nice called for health professionals to think about the possibility of sepsis in all patients who may have an infection.

GPs should send any patient who might have sepsis to hospital in an ambulance. Once in hospital they should be seen by a senior doctor or nurse immediately who can start treatment.

The guidance also includes a checklist of signs and symptoms and details on what to do next.

Last month, Wigan dad Stuart Tagg, urged parents to take heed of the early warning signs of serious illnesses after his son died suddenly of sepsis.

Stuart and his wife Elizabeth, of Ashton, were devastated when their two-year-old son Thomas, who had chickenpox, quickly deteriorated and died in June last year

To help them come to terms with his death, they have been working with UK Sepsis Trust and Stuart, 36, is keen to warn other parents of tell-tale signs.

He said: “Thomas had the normal symptoms of chickenpox. He had a high temperature and didn’t want to eat much apart from fluids.

“But then he deteriorated rapidly at home. He was on the sofa and wasn’t responding to me. He stopped breathing. I called an ambulance, but by the time he arrived, he had stopped breathing completely. I didn’t know what to do - it was terrifying.

“He never came round at the hospital. It was so devastating.

“Tests revealed that Thomas had developed Group A streptococcal sepsis. Fighting chicken pox had left Thomas weak and suppressed his immune system, leaving him unable to fight the deadly infection. His little body was just not able to fight anymore. The speed that Thomas was taken from us was absolutely staggering.

“I just want people to be aware of sepsis and the symptoms, which are a rash, high temperature and lethargy.

“Also look out for a child not passing urine and not eating, but only wanting to drink fluids. People know to check for meningitis but not many people know about sepsis.

“People should not be frightened of going to hospital.

“Thomas was a lively, inquisitive and healthy two-year-old boy who loved life and did everything with either a huge smile or a mischievous grin on his face. Things have been hard, but his older brother, Lucas, six, has coped really well.”

“Our lives have been forever darkened by the loss of our precious son, but one positive to keep us going is the thought we can work alongside The UK Sepsis Trust and raise funds and awareness to prevent other families from having to suffer like we do on a daily basis.”

The move has also been welcomed by Melissa Mead, whose son William died from sepsis following a string of NHS failings.

In January, a report into the death of the 12-month-old criticised GPs, out-of-hours services and a 111 call handler who failed to spot he had sepsis caused by an underlying chest infection and pneumonia.

Mrs Mead said she was “delighted” with the new guidance, adding: “This could not come any sooner. Sadly, we have been touched in very real terms by sepsis and could not agree more that clinicians need to start asking ‘Could this be sepsis?’.

“The awareness of sepsis amongst health professionals and the public is severely lacking, so joined -up thinking and action is necessary to drive down the number of fatalities from sepsis. After all, if I had been aware of it, and those clinicians that treated William were ‘thinking sepsis’ he would more than likely be alive today.”

Early symptoms of sepsis include fast breathing or a fast heartbeat, high or low temperature, chills and shivering, and people may or may not have a fever.

Severe symptoms can develop soon after, and include blood pressure falling low, dizziness, disorientation, slurred speech, mottled skin, nausea and vomiting.

Professor Saul Faust, chairman of the group that developed the Nice guideline, said: “Anyone can succumb to sepsis.

“Sepsis can be difficult to diagnose with certainty. We want clinicians to start asking ‘could this be sepsis?’ much earlier on so they can rule it out or get people the treatment they need. The thinking should be similar to considering that chest pain could be heart-related.

“Just like most people with chest pain are not having a heart attack, the majority of people with an infection will not have sepsis. But if it isn’t considered then the diagnosis can be missed.”

A report by the National Confidential Enquiry published last year found delays in identifying sepsis in over a third (36%) of cases.

Dr Ron Daniels, chief executive of the UK Sepsis Trust, said: “Sepsis is a condition whose time has come. We must act decisively to save many of the thousands of lives claimed every year.”