Could it be sepsis?

What is sepsis?

Sepsis is the body’s overwhelming response to an already present infection. It occurs when the body is fighting an infection but starts to attack itself, leading to tissue damage and organ failure. It is a life-threatening medical emergency that requires urgent treatment.

An infection occurs when a pathogen (a bacteria or virus) enters the body and multiplies, causing illness. Normally when the body tries to destroy the invading pathogen, it triggers the immune-inflammatory system response.

Sepsis can happen when the body’s immune-inflammatory system has an abnormal and exaggerated response. This response can prevent our organ systems from working normally, even if the infection is in a different part of the body.

The most severe form of sepsis is called septic shock, which happens when the body’s immune-inflammatory response affects the heart and circulatory system and leads to multiple organ dysfunction.

Children with sepsis can become critically unwell very quickly, with some requiring treatment in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

Who is at risk of sepsis?

Anyone can get sepsis. Across the world around 40% of cases are in children under 5.

Some children are at greater risk of developing sepsis including those who:

  • are babies and newborns
  • have chronic diseases like diabetes, kidney, liver or heart disease
  • have a low immune system, including those receiving chemotherapy or long-term steroids
  • are too young to have received all their immunisations, unimmunised or haven’t completed their immunisation schedule
  • have medical devices in their body including central venous access devices
  • have had surgery, burns or wounds recently
  • have had sepsis before 

Illustration outlining the people most at risk of sepsis

Preventing sepsis

The best way to protect your child from sepsis is to prevent and manage treatable infections quickly (many viral illnesses don’t require any specific treatment and you can get better on your own). You can help prevent infections by:

  • supporting your child to take care with basic hygiene and keeping their body and hands clean
  • keeping up to date with your child’s vaccinations (including COVID-19 and influenza) to prevent infections
  • keeping insect bites, wounds and skin injuries clean and covered and see a doctor if they are not healing, or if these become red, hot or inflamed
  • visiting your doctor and ensure that your child takes any medicines as directed
  • informing healthcare providers know of your child’s past sepsis diagnosis if you go to hospital or to see a doctor
  • being aware of the early symptoms of sepsis - do not hesitate to call an ambulance if you are worried about sepsis

Recognising sepsis

Knowing your child has sepsis is tricky because many of the early symptoms of sepsis are like those seen in common mild infections. Although most symptoms are not sepsis specific, there are a number of warning signs that may signal the presence of sepsis:


Could it be sepsis? Infographic depicting common signs and symptoms


  • Breathing fast, struggling to breathe or long pauses in breathing
  • Skin is cold to touch or mottled, pale, bright red or discoloured
  • Severe pain e.g. headache, neck, muscle, chest, limb or joint
  • Unable to drink or keep fluids down, passing less urine or reduced wet nappies

Trust your gut. You know your child best. If they seem sicker than normal, seek urgent medical attention and ask the question ‘Could it be sepsis?’

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Diagnosing sepsis

There is no one single diagnostic test to confirm sepsis. It can also be difficult to diagnose early because the signs and symptoms can be similar to many common childhood illnesses like the cold, flu and gastroenteritis.

Doctors consider a patient’s medical background, signs and symptoms and assess things like temperature, heart rate, blood pressure etc before making a clinical diagnosis. They may sometimes organise for other tests to be done including blood cultures, a CT scan, chest X-ray or urinalysis.

How do we treat sepsis at Perth Children's Hospital?

The best chance of getting better from sepsis is to treat it quickly. If it is identified and treated quickly, most patients will make a full recovery. If your child is admitted to Perth Children’s Hospital with sepsis:

  • the doctors and nurses will examine and monitor your child and their vital signs
  • they will receive an intravenous cannula so that blood tests and cultures can be taken and medicines and fluids can be given
  • they will receive antibiotics to help treat the infection
  • surgery may be needed
  • they may be transferred to the intensive care unit for specialist care and treatment

Your child’s healthcare team will communicate with you throughout their admission including providing information about:

  • what a diagnosis of sepsis means for your child in the short, medium and long term
  • your child’s treatment plan during their hospital stay and who will provide this care
  • what to expect as your child recovers in hospital after the initial primary care for sepsis
  • what to do if you are worried your child’s condition is getting worse

Dealing with a complex health issue like sepsis can be stressful and challenging. Let your healthcare team know if you or a family member need support.

After discharge and follow-up care

When your child is discharged from PCH you will receive a discharge letter that outlines recovery goals with clear instructions about follow-up plans with your local doctor (GP). You will also be given any medicine your child will need and information on what to do if you think they are getting worse or relapsing.

Some children may require physical or occupational therapy and rehabilitation following their discharge from hospital. Some children may also experience issues with their emotions, attention, schoolwork, and physical activity. However, most children are back to normal within a few weeks to months after discharge.

Remember to trust your gut and if you feel your child is getting worse, act quickly and take them to your nearest hospital Emergency Department, your GP or call 000 or the 24-hour Health Direct number on 1800 022 222.

Join the PCH Sepsis Program Consumer Group

We are seeking 10 people to shape the care of children and adolescents recovering from sepsis.

Find out more about the group and apply.

For more information


Helpful links

Sepsis Awareness Resources | Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care

Sepsis Clinical Care Standard | Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care

The Australian Commission of Safety and Quality in Health Care Sepsis Program is a national program of work to improve early recognition, treatment, outcomes, and post-discharge support for people at risk of or diagnosed with sepsis in Australia. This includes the Spotlight on Sepsis video series and clinician and consumer fact sheets.

Home - Australian Sepsis Network

Sepsis Australia is a collaboration of individuals and organisations who are working to improve outcomes for patients with sepsis and to provide information and support to sepsis survivors and families and friends of people with sepsis. They are a national program that provides advocacy and leadership within the sepsis space in Australia for healthcare workers and the community.


Sepsis videos

Child Health Fact sheet

Could it be Sepsis? Poster