Signs and symptoms of septicaemia blood poisoning

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Megan Murray
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This life-threatening illness affects 260,000 of us every year, but what is septicaemia and what causes it? We look at the signs and symptoms of sepsis and what you can do to avoid it. 

There’s a lot of reasons to love Call The Midwife. More frivolously, its festive special pretty much makes our Christmas and those swinging Sixties inspired outfits make our hearts sing. 

It’s also one of the only BBC dramas to have a female lead script writer, has a supremely talented predominantly female cast and thanks to its medically-focused story lines, can be rather educational. 

For example, a recent episode which saw the show’s sweetheart, Nurse Barbara Hereward (Charlotte Ritchie), rushed to hospital with septicaemia had us all wondering why we don’t know more about this disease, which affects a whopping 260,000 people in the UK every year. 

After watching our beloved Barbara taken ill, and realising that this disease is still pretty prevalent today, we’ve taken a look into what is septicaemia and what causes it, and the signs and symptoms of septicaemia in adults.

Read on to become more informed about the condition which unfortunately hasn’t been left back in the Sixties but still affects adults and children in the UK (and all over the world) today. 

What is septicaemia?

Septicaemia, or sepsis as it is also called, is another term for blood poisoning. It describes what happens when a lot of bad bacteria gets into the bloodstream, causes an infection in the blood which in turn, poisons the body. 

Septicaemia is a serious condition which can progress quickly and is in some cases, potentially life-threatening.

What causes septicaemia?

Our blood contains millions of white blood cells that help us fight off infection. When we cut ourselves, for example, our white blood cells will fight any bacteria that tries to enter our body through the wound. If the wound does become infected, our white blood cells will destroy the infection and heal the wound, keeping us healthy. 

But sometimes infections overpower these blood cells, either because the bacteria is particularly strong or because the person’s immune system is weak. Once the bacteria has entered the body, it can contaminate the bloodstream and can be carried to other tissues and organs in the body causing other complications.

Septicaemia can start after a wound or burn, but it can also develop as a result of a serious illness or internal infection. 

You could be more likely to get sepsis if you:

  • have recently had surgery 
  • had a urinary catheter fitted
  • have been in hospital for a long time 

If you have suffered from one of the following infections, you could also be at risk of sepsis:

  • lung infection (pneumonia)
  • appendicitis
  • an infection of the thin layer of tissue that lines the inside of the abdomen (peritonitis)
  • an infection of the bladder, urethra or kidneys (urinary tract infection)
  • an infection of the gallbladder (cholecystitis) or bile ducts (cholangitis)
  • skin infections, such as cellulitis – this can be caused by an intravenous catheter that’s been inserted through the skin to give fluids or medication
  • infections after surgery
  • infections of the brain and nervous system – such as meningitis or encephalitis
  • flu (in some cases)
  • bone infection (osteomyelitis)
  • heart infection (endocarditis)
back view of woman sitting on bed in hospital chamber
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What are the signs and symptoms of septicaemia?

The symptoms of sepsis are similar to that of flu, because of the way your body reacts when it’s trying to fight an infection. 

Symptoms of septicaemia: 

  • high temperature
  • extreme tiredness
  • violent shivering and chills
  • faintness
  • pale and clammy skin
  • rapid and shallow breathing

In severe cases, victims of sepsis can develop septic shock, which is when your blood pressure drops to a dangerously low level. 

Symptoms of septic shock:

  • feeling dizzy or faint
  • a change in mental state – such as confusion or disorientation
  • diarrhoea
  • nausea and vomiting
  • slurred speech
  • severe muscle pain
  • severe breathlessness
  • less urine production than normal – for example, not urinating for a day
  • cold, clammy and pale or mottled skin
  • loss of consciousness

Another type of septicaemia is meningococcal septicaemia, a type of blood poisoning caused by the meningococcus bacteria, which can also cause meningitis. 

Symtoms of meningococcal septicaemia:

  • pinprick bruises that don’t change colour when rolled over with  a glass
  • large purple areas on the skin that don’t change colour when rolled over with a glass

Septicaemia treatment

If septicaemia is diagnosed early it can be treated quite simply, with a course of antibiotics that can be taken at home. This is how most people are treated, and make a full recovery. 

If the case is more severe, antibiotics will be inserted intravenously through a drip in hospital and the wound or infection will be treated. 

In very serious cases, when organ failure has occurred, medication to treat low blood pressure may be given and supportive machines may be used to help organs function. 

Can septicaemia be prevented?

You can reduce your risk of getting an infection by properly cleaning and dressing any wounds or burns that you get. 

Images: iStock / BBC


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Megan Murray

Megan Murray is a senior digital writer for, who enjoys writing about homeware (particularly candles), travel, food trends, restaurants and all the wonderful things London has to offer.