Treatment and recovery - Sepsis

Sepsis and septic shock are medical emergencies.

Sepsis is treatable if it's identified and treated early. It's best if you are put on treatment within an hour of diagnosis.

If you have early signs of sepsis, your GP will send you to hospital.

Treatment for sepsis depends on:

  • where the initial infection is and what caused it
  • the organs affected
  • the extent of any damage

In most cases, treatment leads to a full recovery with no lasting problems.

Treatment in hospital

When you get to hospital you'll be treated with antibiotics.

You may also receive:

  • fluids directly into a vein (intravenously)
  • oxygen, if your levels are low

You will be treated based on your symptoms.

Medical staff in the hospital will also carry out tests to check if it's sepsis. These may include X-rays, scans and blood tests.

The tests and treatments will depend on where you have the infection and how unwell you are.

Emergency treatment

Intensive Care Unit (ICU)

Sepsis causes your organs not to work as they should. You're likely to be very ill. Up to 1 in 5 people with sepsis will die. 4 in 5 people will not.

You may need to be taken to an ICU if you are very ill with sepsis and your organs need support, such as being put on a ventilator. 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. Up to 4 in 10 people who develop septic shock die. 6 in 10 people will not.

Antibiotics

Antibiotics are the main treatment for sepsis. These will be given as a liquid directly into a vein (intravenous).

It's best if you are put on antibiotics within an hour of diagnosis. This is to reduce the risk of serious complications or death. You may have to take them for up to 10 days or longer, depending on how serious your condition is.

Antibiotics work against a wide range of known infectious bacteria. Once a specific bacterium has been identified, you'll be given a more focused antibiotic.

Antibiotics

Viral infections

Antibiotics do not work on viral infections. But they may be given if doctors suspect you have a secondary infection. 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 be treated depending on your symptoms. This may include fluids for dehydration or painkillers for pain. Antiviral medicine may be given in some cases.

Intravenous fluids

If you have sepsis, you will need intravenous fluids. These are put directly into a vein. This is to prevent dehydration and kidney failure.

If you have septic shock, you'll have a catheter inserted to track how much you pee.

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.

Oxygen

Your body may need oxygen if you have sepsis. If the level of oxygen in your blood is low, you'll usually be given more 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

Medicines 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:

  • steroids or insulin medicine
  • 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.

Recovering from sepsis

Most people make a full recovery from sepsis. But it can take time.

You might continue to have physical and emotional symptoms. These can last for months, or even years, after you had sepsis.

These long-term effects are sometimes called post-sepsis syndrome, and can include:

  • feeling very tired and weak, and difficulty sleeping
  • lack of appetite
  • getting ill more often
  • changes in your mood, or anxiety or depression
  • nightmares or flashbacks
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Treatment for post-sepsis syndrome

Most symptoms of post-sepsis syndrome should get better on their own. But it can take time.

There are things you can do to help with some long-term effects, such as:

Do

Don't

  • do not try to rush your recovery - give yourself time


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

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

Page last reviewed: 3 October 2022
Next review due: 3 October 2025