What is sepsis?

Ever heard of sepsis? If you haven’t, it’s no surprise as only 5 per cent of Singaporeans have come across the term based on a recent local newspaper survey. Yet, sepsis played a part in 17 per cent of Singaporean deaths in 2009. So what is it exactly and why have so few heard about it?

“Sepsis is a potentially life-threatening systemic inflammatory response caused by a severe infection,” explains Dr Kang Mei Ling​, Senior Consultant, Department of Infectious Diseases, Singapore General Hospital (SGH), a member of the SingHealth​ group.

“As sepsis is not a medical diagnosis per se, doctors seldom put this down as a cause of hospitalisation, and it is not acceptable by ICA as a cause of death,” she adds.

For example if a patient is admitted for a lung infection or urinary infection, doctors prefer to say the patient is suffering from severe pneumonia or a severe urine infection to convey the concept of sepsis. This may explain why most Singaporeans are not familiar with the term.

Causes of sepsis

Sepsis is not caused directly by bacteria or germs but rather by chemicals released into the body in response to a severe infection. These chemicals trigger widespread inflammation, called systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS).

“Infections by some more virulent organisms, such as Staph aureus, Neisseria meningitides and Pneumococcus, are more likely to cause sepsis than others. In our region, melioidosis or ‘soil disease’ can also be a cause but it’s less common,” says Dr Kang.

A weakened immune system – resulting from steroids use, chemotherapy, use of immunosuppressants for organ transplants and diseases like diabetes and HIV – also puts one at greater risk of suffering from severe infections and sepsis.

Read on to learn about the symptoms and precautions for sepsis​.

Ref: R14