Causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment

Sepsis is a potentially life threatening condition in which the immune system overreacts to an infection. This overreaction causes damage to the body’s organs and other tissues.

Anyone with an infant or child showing symptoms of sepsis should take them to the emergency room. Without prompt medical treatment, the condition can lead to severe complications, and even death.

In this article, we outline some of the symptoms and causes of sepsis and provide information on how doctors diagnose and treat the condition. We also discuss some of the factors that can increase a baby’s risk of developing sepsis and offer general tips on prevention.

Early detection and prompt treatment of sepsis reduce the risk of serious complications and death.

Sepsis symptoms can vary, but they will include one or more of the following:

Some of the above symptoms are common in babies and are not necessarily a sign of sepsis. However, if a baby appears sick and shows one or more of the above symptoms, it is important to seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Sepsis is an immune system overreaction to an infection somewhere in the body.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most cases of sepsis are due to a bacterial infection. However, sepsis may also occur in response to a viral, fungal, or parasitic infection.

A 2016 case report notes that most cases of sepsis stem from an infection of the respiratory tract or bloodstream.

Children below 1 year of age are at increased risk of developing sepsis, particularly if they were born prematurely or their biological mother had an infection while pregnant.

Other risk factors for sepsis include having a weakened immune system or a chronic health condition, such as:

Sepsis is a medical emergency in anyone, including babies. A parent or caregiver who suspects that their baby has sepsis should take them to the emergency room immediately for specialist treatment.

The first-line treatment for sepsis is intravenous (IV) antibiotics to help fight off the infection. The baby should receive these within 1 hour of arriving at the hospital.

Additionally, the doctor will provide treatments to help stabilize the infant and reduce the risk of further complications. These treatments may include one or more of the following:

  • IV fluids and electrolytes
  • heart medications
  • blood pressure medications
  • ventilators to help with breathing
  • medications to keep the child calm

The treatment for sepsis can take time and may require a hospital stay of several weeks. In some cases, treatment in an intensive care unit may be necessary.

A doctor will carry out diagnostic tests to determine the underlying cause of the sepsis. Knowing the cause is key to providing the appropriate treatment.

Some diagnostic tests that doctors may use to diagnose underlying infections include:

In some cases, doctors may take medical imaging tests to check for damage to the body’s organs and other tissues. Examples of such tests include:

All babies can develop sepsis, though some are at higher risk than others.

Risk factors include:

  • being below 1 year of age
  • being born prematurely
  • the baby’s biological mother experiencing an infection during pregnancy
  • having a weakened immune system or other underlying health condition that increases their susceptibility to infections
  • having organ dysfunction in multiple organs

When arriving at the emergency room, parents or caregivers should expect to answer questions about the baby’s medical history and any symptoms they have had.

The medical team will immediately administer IV fluids and medications before starting to carry out diagnostic tests.

The length of time for which babies with sepsis will need to remain in the hospital varies. According to a large-scale 2014 study, the average hospital stay is about 17 days. However, some babies may take longer to recover. Those who require a longer recovery period may need to remain in the hospital for more than a month.

Early medical attention will increase the child’s chances of survival and should reduce their overall recovery time.

However, full recovery from sepsis will take time, and a baby may demonstrate behavioral changes after returning home from the hospital. These changes may include:

Following sepsis, some children may continue to experience physical and emotional symptoms. Some possible long-term effects of sepsis include:

In babies, long-term effects from sepsis are common. A 2019 study of childhood sepsis notes that nearly one-quarter of children who recover from sepsis experience a deterioration in health-related quality of life.

Anyone who notices signs of sepsis in their baby, or a baby in their care, should take them to the emergency room immediately. Sepsis can cause a rapid deterioration in health. Without prompt medical treatment, the condition can be fatal.

A 2014 study reported a 14% mortality rate among children with severe sepsis, but the authors noted that the rate was higher in the subset of participants younger than 1 year.

As sepsis results from infection, parents and caregivers should regularly monitor their baby for signs of infection or illness. Some general signs of infection in babies include:

  • poor feeding
  • unusual irritability
  • persistent crying
  • lack of energy
  • decreased or elevated temperature
  • skin rash or change in skin color
  • breathing difficulties

A parent or caregiver who suspects that their baby may have an infection should take them to see a doctor. Treating infections early will help reduce the risk of sepsis.

A baby with sepsis will require urgent medical treatment to reduce the risk of complications and death.

Severe complications may develop more rapidly in babies who have an impaired immune system or a chronic health condition. Nonetheless, all babies should receive urgent treatment, regardless of their overall health status.

With prompt and appropriate treatment, most infants will recover from sepsis within a few weeks. However, some may continue to demonstrate behavioral changes while completing their recovery at home.

The only guaranteed way to avoid getting sepsis is to prevent all infections that can trigger the condition. Although this is unlikely to be possible, parents and caregivers can take steps to reduce the risk of their child getting an infection. Examples include:

  • ensuring that the child’s environment is clean and hygienic
  • sterilizing and treating any open wounds and keeping them covered until they have fully healed
  • controlling any underlying health conditions that may increase a child’s risk of developing infections or sepsis
  • monitoring the child for early signs of infection
  • ensuring that the child receives all recommended vaccines for infections that could lead to sepsis
  • providing adequate nutrition to boost the child’s chances of fighting off infections

Sepsis in babies is a medical emergency. Without prompt treatment, the condition can lead to severe complications and even death.

Parents and caregivers should familiarize themselves with the signs of sepsis in babies and young children. If a child appears sick and shows any signs of sepsis, a person should take them to the nearest emergency room immediately.

It is not always possible to prevent infections that can cause sepsis. However, parents and caregivers can take steps to reduce their child’s risk of developing infections. These include ensuring a clean and hygienic living environment, making sure that the child receives all necessary vaccinations against infectious pathogens, and looking out for early signs of infection.

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