Sepsis in children – what parents need to know

On behalf of Attwaters Jameson Hill posted in Medical Negligence on Wednesday, October 17th, 2018

The 13th September was World Sepsis Day. Whilst awareness of the signs of meningitis and the need for prompt and appropriate treatment has become better known, there is another serious condition that affects 25,000 children each year in the UK – sepsis. This condition can often be missed in adults; in children, the symptoms can be even more difficult to spot as they differ from those commonly seen in older people.

A recent survey showed that 44% of people in the UK have never heard of sepsis and have no idea that it can be a life-threatening emergency. Recent storylines in both Coronation Street and The Archers have helped to create awareness of this devastating condition that can have dramatic consequences for sufferers, particularly the young. One in four of all sepsis survivors suffer permanent and life-changing after-effects.

Sepsis results from the body’s inflammatory response to infection. If it is recognised early and is appropriately managed, it is treatable, but if the symptoms go unrecognised and the appropriate treatment is delayed, it can result in considerable harm to the patient and can prove fatal. Around 44,000 people die of sepsis each year in the UK, putting it in the upper quartile of reported causes of death.

Spotting the signs in children

A child may have sepsis if he or she:

  • is breathing very fast
  • has a fit or convulsion
  • looks mottled, bluish, or pale
  • has a rash that doesn’t fade when pressed
  • is very lethargic or difficult to wake
  • feels abnormally cold to the touch.

A child under five years of age may have sepsis if he or she:

  • is not feeding
  • is vomiting repeatedly
  • has not passed urine for 12 hours.

If a child has a fever or has had one in the last 24 hours, or at the other extreme, a very low temperature, and any other of the symptoms outlined above, then the advice from The UK Sepsis Trust is to ring 999 and just ask: could it be sepsis?

Research has shown that the misdiagnosis or undertreatment of a child who is developing sepsis is often due to a misplaced belief that they are only suffering from a minor childhood illness.

The importance of the ‘sepsis six’

These are the recommended procedures that have been shown to reduce the risk of death by 46.6% when delivered within the first hour. They include the giving of oxygen, antibiotics and fluids, taking blood cultures, assessing lactate levels and monitoring urine output.

How text alerts could help in hospital diagnosis

With the number of reported deaths from sepsis having risen by a third in two years, a new alert system developed by Cambridge University Hospitals could help in early diagnosis. It works by constantly analysing a patient’s observations – temperature, pulse, blood pressure and levels of consciousness – as recorded by staff on handheld devices. If these observations suggest that a patient might have sepsis, a text message warning appears on the device to alert medical staff to the need to start antibiotic treatment.

GP diagnosis is crucial

In their daily work GPs are likely to see many cases of infection, with only a small proportion of these likely to be sepsis. However, as around 70% of sepsis cases arise in the community, it’s very important that GPs and their nursing staff are able to differentiate simple infections from sepsis. To that end, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has published guidelines to help healthcare professionals identify potential sepsis cases and provide earlier treatment.

How we can help

If you or your family have been affected by a delayed diagnosis, poor quality or inappropriate treatment, and have reason to believe that this could have been prevented, then do get in touch by calling us on 0203 871 9258 or email medneg@attwaters.co.uk. You can speak to one of our Nurse Advisers who will be able to assess whether you have a potential claim, and advise you of the steps we can take to assist you.

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