Treatment - Sepsis

Treatment for sepsis varies.

It can depend on:

  • the site and the cause of the initial infection
  • the organs affected
  • the extent of any damage

Your GP will refer you to hospital for diagnosis and treatment if you have early signs of sepsis.

Severe sepsis and septic shock are medical emergencies.

Treatment in hospital

Management of sepsis in hospital usually involves 3 treatments and 3 tests. These are the 'sepsis 6'.

The medical team will carry out these within an hour of diagnosis.

Treatment involves giving:

  • antibiotics – if the sepsis is detected early enough. This may be tablets that you can finish taking at home
  • fluids intravenously (directly into a vein)
  • oxygen if levels are low

Tests will include:

  • taking blood cultures to identify the type of bacteria causing sepsis
  • taking a blood sample to assess how severe the sepsis is
  • monitoring how much you pee to see how well your kidneys are working and find out how severe the sepsis is

Emergency treatment

The Intensive Care Unit (ICU)

You'll need hospital treatment and may need admission to an ICU if your sepsis is severe and there is a risk you may develop septic shock.

Septic shock is when your blood pressure drops to a dangerously low level and blood flow to vital organs is reduced.

ICUs allows the medical staff to focus on treating the infection.

Because sepsis causes problems with vital organs, people with severe sepsis are likely to be very ill.

Up to 4 in every 10 people with the condition will die.

Septic shock is even more serious, with an estimated 6 in every 10 cases ending in death.

Sepsis is treatable if it's identified and treated quickly. In most cases, it leads to a full recovery with no lasting problems.

Antibiotics

The main treatment for sepsis, severe sepsis or septic shock is antibiotics. These will be given as a liquid directly into a vein (intravenous).

Antibiotic treatment should start within an hour of diagnosis. This is to reduce the risk of serious complications or death.

You may have to take them for 7 to 10 days or longer, depending on how serious your condition is.

Types of antibiotics

Broad-spectrum antibiotics are given first. This is because it's important to act fast. Broad-spectrum antibiotics work against a wide range of known infectious bacteria.

Once a specific bacterium has been identified, a more focused antibiotic can be used.

Viral infections

Antibiotics do not work on viral infections but may be given anyway even if a virus is the cause of the sepsis. This is because a secondary infection may develop and antibiotics may be needed to treat this. It would be too dangerous to delay treatment until tests confirm the specific cause.

With a viral infection, you'll need to wait until your immune system starts to tackle the infection. Antiviral medication may be given in some cases.

Intravenous fluids

If you have sepsis, you will need intravenous fluids. This is to prevent dehydration and kidney failure.

If you have severe sepsis or septic shock you'll get fluids for 24 to 48 hours after admission.

It's important that the doctors know how much pee your kidneys are making when you have sepsis. This is so they can spot signs of kidney failure.

If you have severe sepsis or septic shock, you'll have a catheter inserted to track your pee output.

Oxygen

Your body's oxygen demand goes up if you have sepsis. If the level of oxygen in your blood is low, you'll usually be given oxygen.

This is either given through a mask or tubes in your nostrils.

Treating the source of infection

The source of the infection, such as an abscess or infected wound, will also need to be treated.

For example, the medical team may need to drain any pus away. In more serious cases, you may need surgery to remove the infected tissue and repair any damage.

Increasing blood pressure

Medications called vasopressors are used if you have low blood pressure caused by sepsis.

Vasopressors are normally given intravenously while you're in an ICU.

Extra fluids may also be given to help increase blood pressure.

Other treatments

You may also need more treatment, such as:

  • corticosteroids or insulin medication
  • a blood transfusion
  • mechanical ventilation – where a machine is used to help you breathe
  • dialysis – where a machine filters your blood to copy the function of your kidneys

These treatments are mostly used in ICUs where one-to-one nursing and continuous monitoring of vital signs is needed.

Read about symptoms of sepsis


Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE

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This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 123.

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