What is Pediatric Sepsis?

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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 13 October 2019
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Pediatric sepsis is a potentially life-threatening complication of a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection that occurs in an infant or child. Very young patients generally have weaker immune systems than adolescents and adults, so their bodies are less effective at fighting off pathogens. When an infection overwhelms the immune system, it can spread throughout the body via the bloodstream and cause serious symptoms. A patient with pediatric sepsis typically has a very high fever, a dangerously high heart rate, and difficulty breathing. Immediate treatment in the intensive care unit of a hospital is essential to stabilize the patient's vital signs and stop the progression of pediatric sepsis.

Newborns are at the highest risk of developing pediatric sepsis, and the risk decreases steadily with age. An immature immune system is not capable of combating even seemingly mild pathogens, and sepsis can arise in just a few days if an infection is not treated properly. An infection anywhere in the body can progress to sepsis, but the most common initial sites are the respiratory tract, urinary tract, and skin wounds. Parents should be attuned to signs of mild infections to ensure their children receive early, effective treatment.


The symptoms of pediatric sepsis can vary. Most infants who develop the condition have high fevers, chills, and body aches. Heart rate tends to rise and breathing can become rapid, shallow, and difficult. If problems are not treated right away, an infant is at risk of hypothermia and fainting spells. A very serious, sharp drop in blood pressure accompanied by extreme breathing difficulties can induce a fatal complication called septic shock.

An infant who is brought to the emergency room and suspected to have pediatric sepsis is placed on oxygen and hooked up to equipment that monitors vital signs. A mechanical ventilator also may be used if the patient is unable to take deep enough breaths with an oxygen mask. Saline, fluids, and an array of general antibiotics are given through an intravenous (IV) line to stabilize blood pressure, prevent dehydration, and begin treating the infection. Once a patient is stable, doctors can gather blood, urine, and mucus samples to test for specific pathogens.

Specific treatment can be started after laboratory tests and physical exams confirm the type of infection involved. Most bacterial infections are responsive to antibiotics given either through an IV line or orally. Antivirals and antifungal drugs are given as necessary to combat other types of infections as well. If tests reveal that an abscess, a cluster of infectious material, exists somewhere in the body, surgery may be needed to drain or remove it. Infants and children who receive prompt care for pediatric sepsis usually make full recoveries.


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