Sepsis – what you need to know


Knowledge is power and knowing the red flags and signs of sepsis can save your life, and the life of your loved ones.

So what is sepsis?  Sepsis (also known as “septicaemia” or “blood poisoning”) is a life-threatening complication of infection where the body’s immune response starts to damage its tissues and organs.  It can affect every part of the body from head to toe.

How serious is sepsis? Some with sepsis make a full recovery, especially if they are treated early. Others are left with lifelong disabilities, particularly where sepsis is not recognised or treated quickly.  Overall, at least 10% of older people with sepsis die in hospital, and 60% of adults who survive an admission have a new physical or cognitive disability (a ‘cognitive’ disability is one caused by disturbance of normal brain function).

So why is it so important for the older generation to be aware of?  As we get older our immune system no longer fires on all cylinders like it did when we were young and sprightly.  Some people have medical problems or injuries which make infection more likely. When an infection does happen (such as a urinary tract infection, a skin infection like ‘cellulitis’, pneumonia, or an infection after a procedure or surgery) older people are less able to get it under control before sepsis takes over . The sooner you get medical treatment the better the outcome.

So what are the signs of sepsis? Sepsis is not a simple cough, cold or fever. In fact, quite a lot of people with sepsis don’t have a high temperature when they get to hospital, and some even have low body temperatures. People will often have a sense they are unwell with an infection before developing the following as the poisoning takes hold:

Slurred speech or confusion, or difficult to wake

Extreme shivering or muscle pain

Passing no urine (pee/mimi) for a day

Severe breathlessness or breathing very fast

It “feels like you are going to die”

Skin mottled, bluish, or pale or feels abnormally cold to touch

Seek medical help urgently if you or your loved one develops any one of the above.

Unfortunately, sepsis still causes deaths in New Zealand – more than breast, bowel and prostate cancer combined.  The Sepsis Trust NZ is a team of passionate doctors, nurses, survivors and supporters who all work towards the common goal of eliminating unnecessary harm due to sepsis in this country. The Trust aims to increase awareness of sepsis, improve care for people with sepsis, and support the survivors of sepsis and their families/whanau.  Through their fundraising efforts they’ve been able to appoint a sepsis support nurse, who can offer a friendly ear and practical advice to anyone who wants more information, or who might be struggling with sepsis and its aftermath.

Visit the Sepsis Trust NZ website at for more information. Donations or regular giving is much appreciated. Use the website or get in touch at to help support their mission.