Pediatric Sepsis: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

This information is useful for children
A boy suffering from possible sepsis.

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As with adults, when babies and children develop an infection, their immune systems fight the invading culprit, whether it’s bacteria, a virus, or a fungus. But sometimes the immune system’s response to an infection can spin out of control, leading to a life-threatening condition called sepsis. Sepsis occurs when the body’s response to an already-present infection gets out of hand, leading to severe inflammation throughout the body that, in turn, can cause tissue damage and organ failure. When organs begin to stop functioning, the body can enter a stage of sepsis called “septic shock,” and the threat of death is imminent. 

While sepsis is a serious condition at any age, it is particularly dangerous for children because their symptoms can be more difficult to detect. “The biggest difference between adult and pediatric sepsis is recognition,” says Yale Medicine pediatric intensive care doctor Sarah Kandil, MD. “A lot of symptoms we look for in sepsis, like a fever, are similar to other illnesses in children.”  

Though pediatric sepsis is unusual, it’s not all that rare either. Studies estimate that more than 75,000 children are treated for severe sepsis each year in the U.S. 

Sepsis can develop from an injury as simple as an infected scrape on the arm, or it can emerge on top of an already life-threatening condition, such as acute appendicitis. “Those who have a weakened immune system, like kids undergoing chemotherapy, can be especially susceptible,” Dr. Kandil says.  

Besides being more difficult to detect in children, parents, caregivers, and even medical staff may not have enough knowledge about the signs of sepsis. “We have an ongoing campaign in at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital that encourages medical providers and families to be aware of sepsis,” Dr. Kandil says. 

All Yale Medicine’s pediatric care providers are trained to recognize the early signs of sepsis in children, in order to provide quick and accurate care to interrupt the condition’s progress.