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Blood poisoning, or septicaemia, is a bacterial infection that occurs when bacteria get into the bloodstream and multiply rapidly. Blood poisoning normally happens when bacteria enter the bloodstream in large numbers, and spread too quickly for the immune system to destroy them. Once in the bloodstream, some types of bacteria release poisons known as toxins that attack the body’s tissues. Blood poisoning is a potentially life-threatening infection that must be treated rapidly in order to prevent the infection from spreading to the heart and lungs.
Septicaemia begins as an infection in the walls of the blood vessels, before developing into a tissue infection such as cellulitis. Blood poisoning commonly occurs as a complication of a serious infection, such as a kidney infection. Blood poisoning is dangerous because once bacteria get into the bloodstream, it is difficult to prevent them flowing to the body’s vital organs. Meningitis is caused when the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord become infected and inflamed, which can be a consequence of blood poisoning.
Elderly people with existing health conditions are particularly susceptible to blood poisoning, as are children. The risk of blood poisoning is increased if your immune system has been weakened by a chronic illness, or if you have undergone surgery recently.
Symptoms may develop suddenly and can include the following:
* chills and shivering,
* rapid breathing and headache,
* nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea,
* low blood pressure and possible loss of consciousness,
* skin may feel pale, cold, and clammy,
* delirium and/or depression.
In most cases, blood poisoning occurs when bacteria escape from an infection and enter the bloodstream. Blood poisoning can also result from wounds, burns and infected surgical incisions, all of which release enough bacteria into the bloodstream to cause septicaemia. Internal conditions ranging from urinary tract infections and pneumonia, to boils, abscessed teeth and gum problems, may cause blood poisoning if enough bacteria escape into the bloodstream. The bacteria from the infected sites are then carried in the blood to the body’s tissues. The immune system attempts to combat this by releasing endotoxins into the bloodstream to defend the blood vessels against leaking. You may feel feverish and chilled, as the body attempts to bring the poisoning under control and prevent fluid loss into tissues. If this not prevented, infections such as meningitis or typhoid that affect the whole body may develop.
If you think you may have blood poisoning and are displaying any of the symptoms, it is important to seek urgent medical attention. Your doctor will assess your symptoms and carry out a blood test to identify the bacteria causing the infection. If septic shock is suspected, you will be hospitalised while the blood is tested for bacteria, blood gas levels, and other indicators. An electrocardiogram (ECG) may also be taken to check for an irregular heartbeat.
Once the bacteria have been identified, blood poisoning is normally treated with oral or intravenous antibiotics. Additionally, the infected area may need to be drained in order to disinfect it. If septic shock develops, emergency treatment and antibiotics including penicillin will be administered. As blood poisoning can be fatal, it is usually necessary to remain in hospital until a complete recovery is made, in order for any potential complications to be monitored.
The following measures will reduce the risk of blood poisoning:
* Be aware of the symptoms of blood poisoning. The infection can spread very quickly and it is important to know the signs to look out for.
* Vaccines against meningitis and tuberculosis are offered within existing immunisation programmes. Although they do not offer protection against all strains of infection, they still provide an excellent defence.
* Keep wounds clean. If you cut, scratch or break your skin in any way, make sure the wound is cleaned, treated with antiseptic, and covered with a plaster or dressing if necessary.
* If you develop a mouth infection, see your dentist straight away for treatment. For a faster recovery from an abscessed tooth, apply a warm-water compress and rinse with warm salt water. Eating soft foods and flossing regularly can also help to prevent infection spreading.
* A boil should be treated by applying a warm-water compress to the affected area for 20 minutes, three times a day, until it bursts. You should continue to apply the compress until the boil has completely drained of puss. Do not be tempted to squeeze boils as this can spread the infection.
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