Lily Allen’s hospitalisation with septicaemia has focused attention on a little understood but potentially fatal condition which affects thousands of people every year.
The 25 year old singer was reported to be responding well to treatment after being taken to hospital by ambulance from her home in Gloucestershire on Friday night, where she was recovering from her second miscarriage.
She had been with her boyfriend, Sam Cooper, 32, after losing her baby five days earlier, six months into her pregnancy.
Septicaemia is a recognised risk following miscarriage, as foetal material can be left behind in the womb acting as a reservoir for infection. In addition pregnant women have reduced immunity to allow them to carry the baby without rejecting it.
The condition can be life threatening and is caused by the body over-reacting to an infection. The immune system goes into overdrive, triggering reactions that can lead to widespread swelling and blood clotting in the body.
Septicaemia is often called blood poisoning although it is not limited to the blood but can affect the whole body, including the organs. If it is detected early enough and has not affected the organs, it is sometimes possible to treat it at home.
But when the function of vital organs such as the heart, lungs, kidneys or liver is affected, urgent admission to hospital and treatment with intravenous antibiotics in intensive care is necessary. It is estimated that there are more than 30,000 cases of severe sepsis in the UK every year and the numbers appear to be rising.
Septicaemia can be caused by an infection in any part of the body including the lungs (flu or pneumonia), urinary tract, skin or nervous system (meningitis) . Normally, the body responds by fighting the infection, sending white blood cells to destroy the germs causing it. But if the immune system is weakened or the infection is severe it can spread to other parts of the body. The immune system then overreacts causing inflammation which damages tissues, interferes with the flow of blood and can lead to death.
Symptoms of speticaemia usually develop quickly and include fever, chills, a rapid heartbeat and breathing, followed by dizziness (indicating low blood pressure) nausea and cold, clammy skin.
Miss Allen is likely to have been treated in intensive care with “broad-spectrum” intravenous antibiotics, designed to work against a wide range of bacteria, while the results of laboratory tests were awaited. Once a specific bacterium was identified, doctors could have given her a more focused antibiotic.
In some cases sepsis can be caused by a viral infection, but antibiotics would still have been started, even though they will not work against a virus, because it is too dangerous to delay until an accurate diagnosis has been made. Once the virus has been identified, anti-viral drugs may be given.
Miss Allen, daughter of comedian and actor Keith Allen, previously suffered a miscarriage in 2008 when she was dating Ed Simons, a pop star and DJ from the Chemical Brothers.
She started dating 32-year-old Mr Cooper, a builder, last year and has referred to him as “the love of my life”.