Sepsis in Infants and Children: Warning Signs and Symptoms

Sepsis in infants and children is a serious disease that can be life-threatening if it isn’t treated. As children, especially young ones, can’t recognize that they’re sick, adults must learn to identify its symptoms.
Sepsis in Infants and Children: Warning Signs and Symptoms

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 15 December, 2022

Sepsis in infants and children is a serious disease that can lead to death in some cases. It’s a medical emergency that must be treated as soon as possible, as time is of the essence. For this reason, it’s very important to know the warning signs of this disease.

Those with weakened immune systems are most at risk. This serious condition occurs more often in older adults, people with chronic illnesses, and those who’ve suffered significant physical trauma.

What’s sepsis?

Sepsis is also called systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS). It occurs when the body reacts disproportionately to an infection. Although anyone can get SIRS, sepsis in infants and children has its peculiarities.

Firstly, it usually causes a release of chemicals into the bloodstream to fight infection. The effect is inflammation throughout the body. As a consequence, tissue and organ damage occurs. This could lead to multi-organ dysfunction.

This abnormal immune system response affects cardiovascular, neuronal, hormonal, energetic, metabolic, and coagulation functions. In the most extreme cases, it leads to death.

A premature baby in an incubator.
Sepsis is a very serious condition that requires immediate medical attention to prevent fatal consequences.

Types and forms of presentation

Experts classify sepsis based on its severity, the number of affected organs, and the way the body responds to the drugs the doctor prescribes. These are the types of sepsis that exist:

  • Simple sepsis. When the disease hasn’t damaged any organ.
  • Severe sepsis. When at least one organ is failing or there are significant blood pressure drops that treatment can correct.
  • Septic shock. If there’s a significant drop in blood pressure that must be immediately treated with the appropriate drugs for this purpose.

In the case of sepsis in infants and children, this condition is classified into two main types:

  • Neonatal sepsis. The one that affects babies shortly after birth. It appears up to ninety days after birth. If it appears during the first few days, it’s early-onset sepsis.
  • Sepsis in older children. It occurs after babies are three months old.

Warning signs of sepsis in infants and children

Sepsis in infants and children is a serious health condition that can be treated. The important thing is to go to the doctor’s as soon as possible. Early detection of this condition often makes the difference between life and death.

In most cases, sepsis is preceded by an infection, which can be localized to the urinary tract, skin, bones, or lungs. We should note that premature babies and those born with low birthweight are more likely to suffer from sepsis. Age represents a risk factor.

The main symptoms are the following:

  • Fever or abnormally low temperature
  • Fast heart rate
  • Fast breathing
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Clammy skin
  • General state of confusion, dizziness, and disorientation
  • Dyspnea or shortness of breath
  • Nausea and vomiting

Likewise, you must watch out for a series of warning signs. All of them suggest a serious condition, which a doctor must treat as soon as possible.

If more than one of these signs and symptoms happen together, you should immediately seek medical help. When the child is weak, in discomfort, or seems sick, the diagnosis and approach must also be accelerated.

Dry diapers for more than 12 hours in babies is another sign of seriousness, as it indicates dehydration and the body’s efforts to retain fluid. This is related to a drop in blood pressure and reduced blood flow to the kidneys.

A pediatric consultation for sepsis.
Urgent consultation should be established based on the symptoms. Early medical intervention reduces the risk.

You should also read: Urinary Sepsis: Causes and Treatments

Prevention of sepsis in infants and children

There are two ways to prevent sepsis in infants and children:

  • Primary. Immunization with the use of vaccines.
  • Secondary. With long-term antimicrobial prophylaxis and the administration of antibiotics, antivirals, and antifungals, especially to patients with weakened immune systems.

The World Health Organization (WHO) released a series of recommendations to help each family prevent sepsis, particularly in babies and children. We should mention that this disease affects three million newborns and 1.2 million older children each year.

The main preventive measures are the following:

  • Good hygiene practices
  • Use of drinking water
  • Safe preparation of food
  • Complying with the mandatory vaccination schedule
  • Maintaining sanitation services in good condition

As for health personnel, the WHO advises them to comply with the five moments that call for the use of hand hygiene. Likewise, they should keep their work environment sanitized, periodically request infection control equipment, and implement infection prevention protocols each time a patient is treated.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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  • Rios Valdéz, Claudia Verónica, et al. “Factores de riesgo asociados a sepsis neonatal.” Revista de la Sociedad Boliviana de Pediatría 44.2 (2005): 87-92.
  • Tijerina-Torres, Cinthya Yanet, et al. “Sepsis neonatal intrahospitalaria. Incidencia y factores de riesgo.” Revista Médica del Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social 49.6 (2011): 643-648.
  • Tapia, José Luis, et al. “Sepsis neonatal en la era de profilaxis antimicrobiana prenatal.” Revista chilena de infectología 24.2 (2007): 111-116.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.