Sepsis in children

Category: Child Health

Topic: Infections

Key points

  • Sepsis is a potentially life-threatening complication of an infection.
  • Sepsis can be caused by viral, bacterial or fungal infection.
  • Without quick treatment, sepsis can lead to severe illness, multiple organ failure and death.
  • You know your child best so trust your gut feeling.
  • If your child is more unwell than before or this illness is different from other times—go straight to hospital or call 000 and ask "could it be sepsis?"
  • Sepsis is treatable if indentified and treated quickly and, in most cases, leads to a full recovery.

Sepsis is a medical emergency and needs immediate treatment.

It happens when the body is fighting an infection but starts to injure its own tissues and organs. Sepsis can damage many parts of the body and can result in death.

Sepsis can be caused by any infection (viral, fungal, bacterial), but most commonly occurs with bacterial infections of the lungs, urinary tract (bladder, urethra, kidneys), abdomen, skin and soft tissues.

Anyone can develop sepsis, however children, infants, people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, and those with a weak immune system are most at risk.

Signs and symptoms

The signs and symptoms of sepsis can be difficult to diagnose in the early stages of the illness because they are similar to mild infections, such as gastroenteritis or the common cold or flu.

The signs of sepsis include:

  • cold skin
  • seizure
  • working hard to breathe
  • feeling drowsy or confused
  • rash that doesn't fade when pressed
  • blotchy, blue or pale skin
  • feeling a lot of pain or restless
  • floppy.

How is sepsis diagnosed?

Health professionals diagnose sepsis by monitoring observations such as temperature, heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure, as well as regular examinations and medical imaging as needed (X-Ray, ultrasound, CT scan).

The healthcare team will look for and attempt to culture organisms that may be causing the sepsis. They do this with blood tests (blood cultures) as well as looking at other sites in the body and body fluids, such as urine or stool samples, wound swabs and sputum tests.


Sepsis is curable if it is identified and treated quickly and, in most cases, will lead to a full recovery. Children with sepsis will require an initial stay in hospital. Treatment includes antibiotics to treat the infection and support of any organs that are not functioning well. This may include the need for some intravenous fluids and, in more severe cases, medications to support blood pressure and ventilation to support the lungs in the intensive care unit.

How to protect your child from sepsis

  • keep up-to-date with your child's vaccinations
  • practice hand hygiene
  • talk to your healthcare professional about action you can take to prevent infections
  • know the signs and symptoms of sepsis
  • if you suspect sepsis, go straight to hospital or call 000—the germs that cause sepsis can multiply rapidly
  • trust your gut feeling, ask your health professional "could this be sepsis?"

Early diagnosis and treatment of sepsis saves lives.

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