Sepsis can affect anyone at any time but it does tend to strike more often people at the extremes of life, the very old and the very young. As a result, children, particularly premature babies and infants, can be more susceptible to developing sepsis.
Sometimes called blood poisoning, sepsis is the body’s often deadly response to infection or injury. Sepsis kills and disables millions and requires early suspicion and rapid treatment for survival.
Once sepsis sets in, if left untreated, it can progress to septic shock and death. Worldwide, one-third of people who develop sepsis die. Many who do survive are left with life-changing effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain and fatigue, and organ dysfunction (don’t work properly) and/or amputations.
In the United States, more than 42,000 children develop severe sepsis each year. Approximately 4,400 of them die – this is more than those who die of pediatric cancers. Sepsis in the developing world is even more serious, causing many more deaths.
In developing countries, many more children develop sepsis and many more die. Sepsis can occur from unsanitary conditions at birth, maternal infections that are passed on to the newborns, or preventable infections that may be more prevalent in countries with limited vaccinations and medical care.
As with an adult, a child can develop sepsis as the result of any type of infection.
How Does Sepsis Occur in Children?
When a child develops sepsis within a few months of birth (up to 90 days), it is called neonatal sepsis. If the sepsis develops within 24 hours of birth, it is called early onset and the baby was infected during the delivery. Sepsis that develops after delivery is called late-onset neonatal sepsis.
The risk of early-onset neonatal sepsis is increased if:
- The mother has group B streptococcus infection while pregnant;
- The baby is premature; or
- The mother’s membranes rupture (water breaks) more than 24 hours before the baby is delivered.
Babies can develop sepsis after birth if they become infected by bacteria, a virus, or a fungus (rare). Certain situations increase the risk of a baby getting sick. They include:
- Being in the hospital for treatment and
- Being exposed to people who have contagious infections.
The most common infections that can cause sepsis in babies include:
- Respiratory synctytial virus (RSV)
- Cytomegalovirus (CMV)
- E. Coli
- Herpes simplex virus
- Listeria monocytogenes
Very young babies and those who have medical problems may not be able to receive childhood vaccines at the recommended times. This makes the children vulnerable to catching the diseases. Many of these childhood diseases can lead to severe complications, such as sepsis. The most common ones are:
- Rubella (German measles)
- Varicella (chicken pox)
- Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib)
Sepsis in Older Children
As children get older, their exposure to illness can increase as they attend daycare, go to school, and participate in activities, such as sports.
Any open cut or scrape should be cleaned properly and kept clean. We all have bacteria on our skin, but when it gets into the wound, it could cause an infection. A common wound infection is caused by Staphylococcus bacteria, or more specifically, the one called Staphylococcus aureus (s. aureus).
The bacteria can enter the body through something as simple as a scrape on the knee or elbow, or even from a surgical incision. With the advent of the “superbug” or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), there some infections can be much more difficult to treat than others.
Infections can occur in other ways as well. Children, like adults, can develop illnesses such as urinary tract infections, ear infections, pneumonia, even meningitis. Left untreated, these can all lead to sepsis.