healthHealth and Medicinehealthhealth

Sepsis Is As Common As Cancer, As Deadly As A Heart Attack: Do You Know The Signs?

Hospital admissions data show the killer condition is much more common than previously thought.

Laura Simmons - Editor and Staff Writer

Laura Simmons

Laura Simmons - Editor and Staff Writer

Laura Simmons

Editor and Staff Writer

Laura is an editor and staff writer at IFLScience. She obtained her Master's in Experimental Neuroscience from Imperial College London.

Editor and Staff Writer

man lying ill on sofa with cold compress on forehead and table with water, medicines and thermometer

Many survivors of sepsis describe it as the worst they've ever felt.

Image credit: Makistock/

Data from Sweden, published in a new study, show that sepsis in hospital patients is much more common than many previously believed. The researchers are now working to map the situation across the whole of Europe; but do you know the signs and symptoms to look out for?

Initial research back in 2016 in the southern Swedish county of Skåne raised alarm bells when it found the incidence of sepsis was much higher than predicted – 750 per 100,000 adults. Now, new research in the same region is being used as a pilot project, before the team embarks on a similar study covering the whole of Europe.


They found that sepsis was a factor in 4 percent of hospitalizations, and that 20 percent of sepsis patients died within three months.

“This makes sepsis as common as cancer with similar negative long-term consequences, and as deadly as an acute myocardial infarction [heart attack],” said senior author Adam Linder in a statement. “Among sepsis survivors, three-quarters also experience long-term complications such as heart attacks, kidney problems, and cognitive difficulties.”

Sepsis rates have been difficult to track in the past, as co-author Lisa Mellhammar explained: “Doctors classify patients using diagnostic codes. Since sepsis is a secondary diagnosis resulting from an infection, the condition is significantly underdiagnosed, as the primary disease often dictates the diagnostic code.”

It is the view of the researchers that sepsis should be considered an epidemic, and they are working with the European Sepsis Alliance on the next phase of their work.


But what exactly is this killer condition, and would you know it if you saw it?

What is sepsis?

As Mellhammar explained, sepsis is a secondary condition – it’s what happens when an existing infection gets out of control, and the body’s immune system starts attacking otherwise healthy tissue. Almost any infection, including common viral infections like flu and COVID-19, can lead to sepsis, even if the infection itself didn’t seem all that serious to begin with.

The majority of sepsis cases are caused by bacterial infections, often in the lungs, urinary tract, skin, or gastrointestinal tract. If you suspect that you have a bacterial infection, it’s important to seek medical attention early, so that you can get the right treatment and have the best chance of preventing it progressing to sepsis.


Timely treatment is vital in cases of suspected sepsis, as the symptoms can worsen very quickly.

What are the symptoms of sepsis?

Sepsis can be tricky to spot, but there are some signs you should look for.

  • Confusion, disorientation, or slurred speech
  • A fast heart rate or weak pulse
  • Fever, shivering, or feeling very cold
  • Clammy or sweaty skin
  • Pale, blotchy, or blue/gray skin, lips, or tongue – this may be easier to see on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet on deeper skin tones
  • Shortness of breath
  • A rash that does not fade when you press it
  • Extreme pain or discomfort

People with sepsis will often describe feeling extremely unwell. Survivors have talked about having a sense of “impending doom” or a fear of death.  

In babies or very young children, you may also notice:

  • Excessive sleepiness
  • Not responding to you in the normal way
  • Crying that sounds different than usual
  • Noisy or fast breathing

Not every person with sepsis will have all of these symptoms. If in doubt, it’s best to trust your instincts and seek emergency medical care quickly, letting the care provider know that you suspect sepsis. This is especially important if you know the patient has recently had an infection or been exposed to someone else with a potentially contagious disease.

The authors of the Swedish study stressed the importance of improving awareness of sepsis. “Although sepsis care has improved in recent years, we need to enhance our diagnostic methods to identify patients earlier,” said Linder. “Increasing awareness about sepsis among the public and decision-makers is crucial to ensure that resources are allocated appropriately.”

The study is published in JAMA Network Open.

The content of this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.  


All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current. 


healthHealth and Medicinehealthhealth
  • tag
  • bacteria,

  • infection,

  • sepsis,

  • health,

  • hospital,

  • bacterial infection