PEM adventures chapter 4

Cite this article as:
Team PEM Adventures. PEM adventures chapter 4, Don't Forget the Bubbles, 2021. Available at:
https://doi.org/10.31440/DFTB.33252
Miserable child with asthma

Meet Jasmine, a 23-month-old girl with a background of recurrent viral-induced wheeze. Today, she’s come in with a three-day history of coryzal symptoms and has been struggling with her breathing since this morning. Her mum had been giving 10 puffs of salbutamol at home but it didn’t seem to be making much difference so she’s brought her into your Paediatric ED.

On examination, Jasmine looks pale. There’s a scattered wheeze and a few basal crepitations. She has moderate abdominal breathing with some associated tracheal tug.

Her observations are up:

Ouch, you don’t like the look of those oxygen saturations. She’s not that wheezy, but you wonder if she will open up with a bronchodilator and is currently too tight for you to hear much wheeze.  

You pop on high flow oxygen at 15 L/min but what do you prescribe?

The oxygen brings Jasmine’s sats up to 95%, her colour improves a little but she continues to work hard with her breathing.

BTS 2019 asthma guidelines

You know the BTS/Sign guideline suggests children over 1 year may benefit from asthma medications and she has responded before. Looking at her observations, you decide Jasmine fits a picture of Acute Severe wheeze and decide to try a single dose of salbutamol then reassess for a response.

The oxygen brings Jasmine’s sats up to 95%, her colour improves a little but she continues to work hard with her breathing.

BTS asthma severity

Looking at her observations, you decide Jasmine fits a picture of Acute Severe wheeze as per the BTS/SIGN guidance and prescribe a burst of 3 back-to-back salbutamol nebulisers with ipratropium added to the first. She is quite young, but you know she’s been wheezy with coughs and colds before.

While these are running through you pick up an ankle injury that you can see quickly and ask Jasmine’s nurse to repeat her observations when she has completed treatment.

The oxygen brings Jasmine’s sats up to 95%, her colour improves a little but she continues to work hard with her breathing.

BTS asthma severity

Looking at her observations, you decide Jasmine fits a picture of Acute Severe wheeze as per the BTS/SIGN guidance and this is the most likely diagnosis since she has been wheezy with cough and colds before.

However, she’s still young and you don’t want to overdo the beta-agonists, so you decide to prescribe a single salbutamol nebuliser and review her response 15 minutes later.

As you are about to pick up the next card, some of the medical students you’ve worked with before ask if they can follow the case with you. “We’ve barely seen any wheezy kids in our whole placement,” they say. “Of course,” you reply, “but we’ve barely seen any during the pandemic either… I might need your help remembering how to treat her!”

You recap the case for them and explain what treatment you have decided to give first.

“Wouldn’t you ever use nebulised magnesium in a case like this?” one of the students asks. “I am sure I read that the BTS/Sign guideline suggests it for all children with sats of less than 92% at presentation?”

You pull the guideline up on your phone.

They’re right. However, you’ve never done this in practice. As far as you remember the evidence around nebulised magnesium is mixed.

In 2013 the Lancet published the results of the MAGNETIC trial.

This, you explain, was an RCT designed to compare standard acute asthma treatment with standard treatment plus nebulised magnesium sulphate. 500 children aged 2-16 years with acute severe asthma were randomised to receive either nebulised magnesium sulphate in addition to salbutamol or placebo plus salbutamol. They found no difference in the asthma severity score at 60 minutes post randomisation. However, they did note, that magnesium made more difference to those with more severe symptoms at presentation and a short duration of wheeze.

Following this there was some enthusiasm for giving magnesium to children with short duration of severe wheeze, but, you continue, it’s never really caught on. Last year, a large study of over 800 2 to 17 year olds with acute wheeze, showed absolutely no benefit of magnesium sulphate over placebo: there was no difference in hospitalisation within 24 hours or change in asthma severity score at four hours. “So, in answer to your question,” you tell the students, “it’s probably not going to make much difference here.”  

As you finish explaining, Jasmine’s nurse comes in to find you. ”Can you come and review Jasmine please?” she asks. “She’s not looking too great.”

And she’s right, in fact Jasmine barely looks any better than when she arrived. She is more tachycardic and feels cool at her hands and feet. She is still recessing, a bit less wheezy, and the oxygen saturations, in 15L, are sitting at 96%.

Observations forchild with asthma

Hmmm… you think to yourself… she needs another neb and if she doesn’t improve after that we’ll have to escalate things…

While Jasmine’s nurse gets the next nebuliser ready, you wonder whether a dose of steroids wouldn’t go amiss. At almost two years old, with a history of similar episodes, this sounds like a case of viral induced wheeze to you.

You know from Foster’s 2018 trial, that in children with pre-school wheeze, steroids made no difference to acute change in respiratory score or time to ED discharge. The key benefit they showed was reduction of length of hospital stay amongst children who were admitted.

This could be Jasmine. But you’re not sure which way she’s going yet… So what do you prescribe?

You prescribe a dose of oral prednisolone – which Jasmine promptly vomits.

If only your hospital was using dexamethasone these days.

You know that the original trial by Cronin and colleagues showed no significant difference in day 4 respiratory score or unscheduled reattendance when they compared dexamethasone to prednisolone for wheezing children aged 2-16. And there seems to be a growing evidence base to support these findings. Unfortunately, the most recent systematic review you’ve read was underpowered to draw strong conclusions. Although one thing was pretty clear – children with wheeze are far less likely to vomit after dexamethasone compared to prednisolone.

You go back and select again…

You’ve read up a bit on the evidence around this, and know that the original trial by Cronin and colleagues showed no significant difference in day 4 respiratory score or unscheduled reattendance when they compared dexamethasone to prednisolone for wheezing children aged 2-16. This finding has been replicated in many subsequent trials as Wei and colleagues summarise in their recent systematic review. Although the review was underpowered to draw strong conclusions, there was one thing they were pretty clear on – kids are hands down less likely to vomit after dexamethasone compared to prednisolone. Jasmine tolerates the dex just fine.

You’d rather not start the steroids just yet.

Jasmine is only 23 months old. You know she’s been wheezy before but this could still be bronchiolitis.

As far as you remember, the greatest benefit of prednisolone for pre-schoolers is supposed to be amongst those admitted to hospital, when oral prednisolone will reduce time to hospital discharge. So, you hold off for now thinking that you can always give a dose later.

It’s time for a clinical review. But Jasmine looks worse. She is still tachycardic, a bit mottled, wheeze is unchanged and she’s more tachypnoeic.

Observations for child with asthma

“She’s not responding,” you say. “We’re going to need an IV bronchodilator after all.”

You insert a line for IV treatment and take a gas and a few other bloods while you are at it. You decide to make your consultant aware that Jasmine is looking pretty sick. They agree she needs an IV bronchodilator and will pop down to review straight away.

You sit down to prescribe her treatment…

But what drug are you going to give?

You decide to give IV salbutamol as your first line agent

You recently read a large Cochrane review on second-line treatments for acute asthma. It was published last year and included 67 trials from 13 different Cochrane reviews dated up to the end of December 2019 (7). You don’t remember all the details but you do remember that NO single IV agent had been shown to reduce rates of escalation to PICU.

Jasmine is very tachycardic, but she’s also borderline hypotensive so on balance you decide this will be a better option than magnesium. The BTS guidelines suggest either salbutamol or magnesium can be used as first-line IV agent and you feel it’s the right choice in this particular scenario.  

You type up the script and ask Jasmine’s nurse to get it ready as quick as she can.

You decide to give IV magnesium as your first line agent.

You recently read a large Cochrane review on second-line treatments for acute asthma. It was published last year and included 67 trials from 13 different Cochrane reviews dated up to the end of December 2019. You don’t remember all the details but you do remember that NO single IV agent had been shown to reduce rates of escalation to PICU. Magnesium sulphate is your go-to IV drug for refractory wheezers, its recommended in the BTS guidelines and it hasn’t let you down so far.

You type up the script and ask Jasmine’s nurse to get it ready as quick as she can.

You decide to give aminophylline as your first line agent.

But your nurse in charge is reluctant. “We don’t typically use this first-line” he says…and it’s true, you don’t prescribe it often. You recently read a large Cochrane review on second-line treatments for acute asthma. It was published last year and included 67 trials from 13 different Cochrane reviews dated up to the end of December 2019. You don’t remember all the details but you do remember that NO single IV agent had been shown to reduce rates of escalation to PICU.

Your nurse in charge had read the same review and reminded you that it also found vomiting to be more common with aminophylline.

OK, we’ll go with magnesium then,” you say, it shouldn’t make too much of a difference –  she just needs something fast.

Finally, the infusion is up and running. You decide now is a good moment to grab a round of coffees for the team. But, to your horror, whilst standing in the queue, the crash buzzer goes off… you sprint back to the department wondering who on earth it can be for…

…and arrive to find Jasmine having CPR.

Jasmine turned pale after the infusion started, became more tachycardic, then hypotensive and then crashed.

The play specialist is crying as she thinks she overstimulated her with the bubbles. “It’s not that,” you reassure her, “I think we must have missed something here.”

But despite a sterling resuscitation and the team’s best efforts, Jasmine does not survive. Fortunately for you, this is not real life, it’s a PEM adventure and so we get to go back in time…..

And THIS time, you’re handed the gas before you write up the IV bronchodilator.

Oh rats,” you think. Tachycardia, hypotension, raised lactate. This must be sepsis. Hastily you prescribe 80mg/kg ceftriaxone and a 20ml/kg saline bolus.

But to your dismay this just puts Jasmine’s heart rate up even further.

At that moment your consultant arrives.

“Hmm… calcium’s a bit low,” they say.

Your mind is racing… why is the calcium low? Her lactate, her tachycardia, her poor response to bronchodilators and fluid is all starting to feel decidedly cardiac to you.

Jasmine starts to look drowsy and a worrying shade of pale. You order a portable CXR and your consultant suggests a dose of calcium gluconate – just in case. As all this is being organised, you recap the story so far.

“This is 23 month-old Jasmine. She presented with three days of coryzal illness followed by difficulty in breathing and wheeze. She’s had an oxygen requirement since she got here and was working hard with mild wheeze on auscultation. We gave salbutamol nebulisers plus ipratropium and a dose of steroids with little effect on her tachypnoea. She’s been here for about an hour and a half and has become more tachycardic, with a poor gas. We were about to give an IV bronchodilator,” you explain, “but with that gas I am really concerned we are missing something.”

Together you and your consultant re-examine Jasmine. She’s pale, peripherally mottled and tachycardic. Her BP is holding at 75 systolic. Her heart sounds are so fast you can’t tell if there’s a murmur or not. Her peripheral pulses are thready and those basal creps are now worse. Her liver is palpable 5cm below the costal margin

“Its got to be cardiac,” you conclude. “Shall we get her round to resus?”

Round in resus you pull up Jasmine’s x-ray. Her lungs look a little wet to you.

CXR of child with myocarditis

And it all starts to make sense. No wonder she didn’t get better with salbutamol – it never was bronchial asthma in the first place. It must have been cardiac wheeze secondary to rapid onset pulmonary oedema. “This must be a cardiomyopathy or myocarditis,” you say out loud. You know you know you need to support Jasmine’s sick myocardium with a vasoactive agent and fast.

But which one are you going to choose?

Adrenaline – a potent beta-agonist with alpha activity at higher doses; increases heart rate and contractility; good for low cardiac output states. “Yes, this would work here” your boss agrees..

Great choice. Time to move on.

Noradrenaline – a potent alpha-agonist with beta-agonist activity at higher doses; noradrenaline increases systemic vascular resistance by vasoconstriction and is good for distributive shock.

Hmmm…no, not norad” advises your consultant…

Try again

Milrinone – an inodilator that induces positive inotropy through phosphodiesterase inhibition, but simultaneously decreases systemic vascular resistance;  good for low cardiac output states. “This could work” your boss agrees, but they have never used it in ED before. Hmmmm…maybe not the best choice for now.

 Try again

Dopamine – a dopamine and adrenoreceptor agonist with dose dependent effects: inotropy at lower doses, vasoconstriction at higher doses; and additional effect to promote aldosterone secretion. At least you know how to give this peripherally, but you are not sure it’s the best option for Jasmine.

Try again

Dobutamine – an alpha and beta-agonist that produces increased myocardial contractility with little effect on heart rate and systemic vascular resistance; good for low cardiac output states. This could work, although you barely ever use it.

We can get some advice from our retrieval team” suggest your consultant “but I don’t think is the best choice for Jasmine”.

Try again

You call the local cardiac centre who agree, Jasmine should be treated as having cardiogenic shock and suggest that starting a peripheral or IO adrenaline infusion at 0.01mcg/kg/min is the safest first line option.

“What about milrinone?” you ask. They explain that they would prefer to wait until Jasmine’s BP is more stable as milrinone can vasodilate before it starts to work as an inotrope. It’s best given, they advise, once she’s safely arrived at their end and had an echo to confirm the diagnosis.

They would like you to intubate to reduce myocardial demand once the adrenaline infusion is up and request immediate transfer to their unit – no more fluid boluses. In fact, they suggest, have adrenaline boluses ready for intubation: draw up the arrest dose into a 10 ml syringe and dilute with saline so it can be given in 1ml aliquots at a tenth of the arrest dose to support the BP if needed.

If possible put in an arterial line, or at the very least cycle the BP every minute. Oh and of course, don’t forget an ECG.

Jasmine is successfully intubated for transfer using ketamine, rocuronium and fentanyl in a 1:1:1 ratio.

As you finally sit down to write some notes, the medical students from earlier approach.

“This has been fascinating,” they say. “We’d like to present this case at grand rounds. Myocarditis: the master of disguise. And we found this great paper…”

Freedman et al. Pediatric myocarditis: emergency department clinical findings and diagnostic evaluation. Pediatrics 120; 6:1278-85 December 2007 

Freedman and colleagues performed a retrospective review of paediatric patients who attended the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto with myocarditis between May 2000 and May 2006. There were 16 cases of definite (biopsy-proven) myocarditis and 15 cases of probable myocarditis. And when looked at the demographics of the sample they found a few interesting things:

  • Age was not normally distributed, with peaks among children under three years and over 16 years of age
  • In their cohort:
    • 32% presented with predominantly respiratory symptoms
    • 29% had cardiac symptoms
    • 6% had gastrointestinal symptoms  
    • But this was significantly associated with age
  • Half of under 10’s had primarily respiratory symptoms
  • None of the under ten’s had cardiac symptoms or chest pain at presentation
  • The two children with gastroenteritis symptoms were also under ten.
  • Initial misdiagnosis with pneumonia or asthma happened in 57% of cases.
  • 25% of children were admitted with a different diagnosis to begin with.

This starts to make you feel a little better.

“But it’s not only symptoms that can be misleading,” the students continue. The paper looked at the relevance of investigations too:

  • Just over (55%) half of initial chest x-rays were abnormal.
  • Typical signs when present included cardiomegaly, pulmonary venous congestion and pleural effusion.
  • ECG was more sensitive with 93% abnormal at presentation

Signs included: ST or T wave abnormalities, axis deviation, ventricular hypertrophy, infarction pattern, decreased voltage, atrial enlargement and AV block.

  • Aside from troponin (which wasn’t assessed as it was measured at presentation in less than 30% patients), AST was the most useful biomarker for potential myocarditis and a value over 100 U/L was significantly associated with cardiac disease

Well, you think to yourself as Jasmine leaves the building with the retrieval team, sick but more stable, every day’s a school day. As you reflect on the biases influencing your decision making through Jasmine’s ED journey, you remind yourself to keep a more open mind in the future. And you save the date in your diary for the medical student’s grand round presentation.

Jasmine makes a complete recovery and one year later comes to visit you in PED. She and her Mum have been busy fundraising and she is here, full of 3 year old attitude, ready to donate the proceeds to your department.

But before we go, lets hop back in that PEM adventures time machine one more time and see what was the learning from Jasmine’s case.

Nebulised MgSO4

The MAGNETIC trial in 2013 was an RCT designed to compare standard acute asthma treatment with standard treatment plus nebulised magnesium sulphate (2).

Powell, C., Kolamunnage-Dona, R., Lowe, J., Boland, A., Petrou, S., Doull, I., Hood, K., Williamson, P. and MAGNETIC Study Group, 2013. Magnesium sulphate in acute severe asthma in children (MAGNETIC): a randomised, placebo-controlled trial. The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, 1(4), pp.301-308.

They randomised 500 children aged 2-16 years with acute severe asthma to receive either nebulised magnesium in addition to salbutamol or salbutamol plus placebo. They found no difference in the asthma severity score at 60 minutes post randomisation. However, they did note that magnesium made more difference to those with more severe symptoms at presentation and a short duration of wheeze.

Last year, a large multicentre Canadian study of over 800 2-17-year-olds with acute wheeze (3) showed absolutely no benefit of magnesium sulphate over placebo. They randomised children with persistent signs of moderate to severe wheeze after initial treatment with three albuterol and ipratropium nebulisers and steroids to receive either magnesium sulphate or placebo to be administered alongside three further albuterol nebulisers.  The primary outcome measure for this study was hospitalisation within 24 hours. They found no difference between groups in hospitalisation or change in asthma severity score at 4h post-treatment.

So, although the BTS guideline still does recommend this, in practice its not used widely in UK emergency departments and although it’s unlikely to do harm, it probably won’t make a huge difference to the patient in front of you.

Steroids for preschool wheeze

Two well-known studies on this topic are those by Foster in 2018 (4) and Panickar in 2009 (10) and for a great discussion on these have a read of this DFTB blog (11)

Panickar, J., Lakhanpaul, M., Lambert, P.C., Kenia, P., Stephenson, T., Smyth, A. and Grigg, J., 2009. Oral prednisolone for preschool children with acute virus-induced wheezing. New England Journal of Medicine360(4), pp.329-338.

In 2009, Panickar and colleagues performed a double blind RCT in children aged 10-60 months with acute virus induced wheezing across three UK centres (10). They randomised 700 children to receive a 5-day course of either prednisolone or placebo after initial albuterol treatment and measured the PRAM score at 4 hourly intervals from enrolment to hospital discharge.

Their primary outcome measure was duration of hospital stay and the trial found no significant difference between groups on this measure. There was also no difference in PRAM scores at any time interval or readmission within 1 month. And this held even when performing a subgroup analysis of children at higher risk of an atopic asthma phenotype. Of course, the caveat to this study, is the age range included in the trial. Infants in the ten months to 2 years age group show a degree of heterogeneity in disease phenotype; many will have a bronchiolitic illness rather than an inflammatory viral induced wheeze and respond differently to steroid medication (12).

Foster, S.J., Cooper, M.N., Oosterhof, S. and Borland, M.L., 2018. Oral prednisolone in preschool children with virus-associated wheeze: a prospective, randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. The Lancet Respiratory Medicine6(2), pp.97-106.

Foster and colleagues performed a similar trial in 2018 (4) randomising 600 children aged 24-72 months presenting with virus-associated wheezing, to receive prednisolone or placebo. They chose this age range specifically to avoid the confusion of including patients with bronchiolitis in the sample.

They also found that steroids made no difference to acute change in respiratory score or time to ED discharge. However, amongst children who were admitted to hospital, total length of stay in the steroid group was reduced. There was no difference in re-attendance or PICU admission but of note, children with the most severe symptoms or co-morbidities at presentation (for example, oxygen saturations <92% in air; a silent chest; shock or sepsis; previous PICU admission with wheeze; prematurity; other cardiac or respiratory disease) were excluded. So for this group, which would certainly include Jasmine, the question perhaps remains unanswered.

Wallace, A., Sinclair, O., Shepherd, M., Neutze, J., Trenholme, A., Tan, E., Brabyn, C., Bonisch, M., Grey, N., Johnson, D.W. and McNamara, D., 2021. Impact of oral corticosteroids on respiratory outcomes in acute preschool wheeze: a randomised clinical trial. Archives of Disease in Childhood106(4), pp.339-344.

A further trial, published last year by Wallace and colleagues (13), randomised 493 children aged 24-59 months to receive either prednisolone or placebo. They found no difference between groups in the primary outcome measure – change in baseline PRAM score at 24 hours and 7 days. However, they noticed with interest, that the median PRAM score at 24 hours was zero in both groups with only a small number of children remaining symptomatic at this time point.  This they argue, illustrates how viral-induced wheezing attacks may often be short-lived in nature and the most important benefits of steroids, if any, must occur within that initial 24-hour period.

Within the first 24 hours, they did find some benefit of prednisolone over placebo: those in the prednisolone group had significantly lower PRAM scores 4 hours after medication administration which translated into a reduced requirement for hospital admission, additional steroid or intravenous treatment. A particular strength of this study was the analysis of several subgroups for salbutamol responsiveness, positive Asthma Predictive Index and baseline severity. The subgroup analysis showed that the primary outcome measure (PRAM score at 24 hours and 7 days) was not modified by any of these factors, however, the analysis was not extended to the secondary outcomes (ie what happened within those first 24 hours).

This is a shame as it is increasingly well recognised that several different wheezing phenotypes exist and that these may determine response to standard asthma therapies. Ultimately, the answers we are looking for may come from studies such as the DOORWAY (Determinants Of Oral corticosteroid Responsiveness in Wheezing Asthmatic Youth) (14) project. This exciting study aims to identify genetic determinants of responsiveness to steroids so that one day clinical management can be better individualised.

Dexamethasone or prednisolone?

This is an interesting question that has been raised within the PEM community in recent years. Early studies show single dose dexamethasone is non inferior to a 3 day course of oral prednisolone for children attending ED with wheeze. It sorts out the respiratory symptoms, is overwhelmingly less likely to get vomited up and doesn’t need to be given by parents for two further days at home.

For example, the original trial by Cronin and colleagues showed no significant difference in day 4 respiratory score or unscheduled reattendance when they compared dex to pred for wheezing children aged 2-16 (5). This finding has been replicated in many subsequent trials as Wei and colleagues summarise in their recent systematic review (6).

Wei and colleagues looked at 7 trials comparing dexamethasone to prednisolone for the treatment of acute wheeze , specially aiming to compare relapse rates and adverse effects. Six out of the seven trials included children from age 2 to adult – avoiding the inclusion of those with potential bronchiolitis, but clearly including a mix of both atopic asthmatics and those with viral induced pre-school wheeze.  

Wei and colleagues found no significant difference between dexamethasone and prednisolone on relapse rate up to five days post treatment or 10-15 days of follow-up and this held whether children received one or two doses of dexamethasone. There was no difference in hospital readmission rates or adverse events between the two drugs, however the incidence of vomiting both in hospital and at home was significantly higher in the prednisolone group.

Sounds like a no-brainer then? Unfortunately, not quite. Conscious of the relatively small number of quality trials conducted on this topic, Wei and colleagues conducted a power calculation to determine the validity of their results. This showed the meta-analysis was underpowered to accurately answer the questions posed. Whilst their results are suggestive that dexamethasone is at least equivalent to prednisolone, they caution that further and larger studies on the topic are required before strong conclusions can be drawn.  In addition, further studies should try to differentiate dexamethasone response between pre-school wheezers and those with a more atopic phenotype as anecdotal evidence suggest there is likely to be a difference between these two groups.

Again, this is all going to come back to findings of projects such as DOORWAY which should one day help us to provide more nuanced care.

IV bronchodilators

Despite the fact that an acute exacerbation of wheeze or asthma represents the bread and butter of acute paediatrics, we have a yet to achieve consensus for the best way in which to treat it.  It is widely accepted that inhaled bronchodilators and steroids are the best first-line approach, but there are several options for second line IV treatment (IV beta-agonists, IV adrenaline, IV magnesium sulphate, IV methylxanthines and IV ketamine) and no evidence with which to separate them. A few years ago PERUKI conducted a survey to establish prescribing practices for second line asthma treatments amongst senior UK based ED clinicians (15) and this clearly illustrated wide variation in practice around the UK. Magnesium sulphate was the most frequently prescribed first IV infusion but this was by no means universal.

Last year a Cochrane review of systematic reviews on treatments for asthma (7) was conducted, the aim being to try and unravel the story here a little better. They included 13 Cochrane Systematic Reviews on various treatment options for acute asthma. Primary outcomes were length of stay, hospital admission, intensive care unit admission, and adverse effects. Four of the 13 reviews focussed on IV medication although none compared all three big players (beta agonists, magnesium sulphate and methylxanthines) head-to-head. No single agent was identified as being able to reduce risk of ITU admission. And no one single agent appeared markedly superior to the others for any of the primary outcome measures.

What we need, is a well-designed and adequately powered, large scale RCT to directly compare the three most commonly used IV bronchodilator treatments, including subgroup analyses in preschool and school‐aged children, and for varying degrees of asthma severity.

Myocarditis

This case was a great illustration of the difficulties that can arise in the early identification of acquired cardiac pathology, particularly in younger children who do not tend to complain of cardiac symptoms and may present with a predominantly respiratory or non-specific picture. The key to diagnosis is recognising when there is a lack of expected response to treatment and picking up on the small signs that can give the game away. The astute amongst you may have noticed Jasmine’s unusually wide pulse pressure at presentation. Perhaps, if you had been the doctor examining, you’d have felt for the liver a little earlier on too?

From a PED management perspective the key to success is firstly in recognising the problem and getting early expert advice.

Myocarditis has been defined as an “inflammatory disease of the heart muscle” and has a variable clinical presentation, with several distinct disease phenotypes (16). As in Jasmine’s case, it is commonly viral in origin (think enterovirus/coxsackie/adenovirus and parvovirus). But there are some other important differentials to consider as well:

  • Familial Cardiomyopathy/metabolic
  • Cardiac Structural abnormality (ALCAPA/Coarctation)
  • Idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy
  • Hypocalcaemia and Vitamin D deficiency (8)

Classic myocarditis may have a relatively insidious onset with worsening fatigue and exertional dyspnoea or in older teenagers may mimic an acute coronary syndrome. It is associated with echocardiographic findings of left ventricular dilatation (which may be indistinct from a dilated cardiomyopathy picture), reduced ejection fraction, segmental wall abnormalities +/- pericardial effusion (16).

Fulminant myocarditis is a distinct symptom complex, and when supportive care is administered in a timely fashion, typically enjoys a higher rate of complete recovery of function. It may present with a history of recent viral illness followed by sudden-onset heart failure usually within 2-4 weeks and usually has more severe ventricular dysfunction. In contrast to classic myocarditis, it has an echocardiographic phenotype of reduced left ventricular ejection, normal left ventricular cavity size, and increased septal thickening.

Fulminant myocarditis conversely is a distinct symptom complex. It typically follows a viral illness and presents with sudden onset heart failure as in our case above. Echocardiographic findings typically show reduced left ventricular ejection, normal left ventricular size and increased septal thickening. Heart size on chest x-ray may not be hugely increased (16). Provided appropriate supportive measures are initiated early, long-term prognosis is often better in this group (16).

Management – both in ED and PICU – is predominantly supportive.

Inotropes are the best way to support the child, like Jasmine, presenting in cardiogenic shock. And heart failure should be managed according to published guidelines once the child is stabilised (17). Adrenaline is recommended as a first line infusion where there is evidence of hypotension and poor end organ perfusion. Milrinone and/or dobutamine are of benefit once BP has stabilised (17). The child should be intubated and ventilated but make sure you’ve gone through your intubation checklist and be prepared for a bumpy ride as these patients are notoriously unstable and will arrest with even slight changes to their compensatory physiology.

Despite much debate and equivocal evidence of benefit (18), in PICU Jasmine received a dose of IVIG and over the course of 10 days was gradually weaned off milrinone.  She made an excellent recovery with a return to normal ventricular function 6 months later. Unfortunately, many children are not as lucky and will require ECMO – either as rescue therapy or as a bridge to transplant.

Jasmine was 23 months old, but for children under 10kg ECMO as a bridge is problematic, both ethically and clinically: there’s a small pool of eligible hearts and ECMO is a finite resource.  The answer may be a left ventricular assist device, where there have been growing reports of success, including amongst the very young (19) … but that’s for another PEM adventure.

References

  1. SIGN158 British guideline on the management of asthma: A national clinical guideline. First published 2003 Revised edition published July 2019
  2. Powell et al. Magnesium sulphate in acute severe asthma in children (MAGNETIC): a randomised controlled trial.  The Lancet Volume 1; 4: 301-308 June 2013
  3. Scuh at al. Effect of nebulized magnesium vs placebo added to albuterol on hospitalization among children with refractory acute asthma treated in the emergency department: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2020;324(20):2038-2047.
  4. Foster et al.  Oral prednisolone in pre-school children with virus-associated pre-school wheeze: a prospective, double blind, randomised controlled trial. The Lancet. Volume 6, Issue 2. P97-106. February 2018.
  5. Cronin et al.  A randomized controlled trial of single dose oral dexamethasone versus multi-dose oral prednisolone for acute exacerbations of asthma in children who attend the emergency department.  Annals of Emergency Medicine: 67;5: 503-601 2016
  6. Wei at al. Oral Dexamethasone vs. Oral Prednisone for Children With Acute Asthma Exacerbations: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Pediatrics. 2019 Dec 13;7:503. doi: 10.3389/fped.2019.00503.
  7. Craig et al. Interventions for escalation of therapy for acute exacerbations of asthma in children: an overview of Cochrane Reviews. Cochrane Database Systematic Reviews. 2020 August 5;8:CD012977. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD012977.pub2. PMID: 32767571.
  8. Maiya et al. Hypocalcaemia and vitamin D deficiency: an important, but preventable, cause of life-threatening infant heart failure. Heart 94.5 (2008): 581-584.
  9. Freedman et al. Pediatric myocarditis: emergency department clinical findings and diagnostic evaluation. PEDIATRICS 120; 6:1278-85 December 2007 
  10. Panickar et al. Oral prednisolone for preschool children with acute virus-induced wheezing. New England Journal of Medicine. 2009 Jan 22;360(4):329-38. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa0804897. 
  11. Tessa Davis. Steroids for pre-school wheeze, Don’t Forget the Bubbles, 2018. Available at:
    https://doi.org/10.31440/DFTB.14563
  12. Fernandes RM et al. Glucocorticoids for acute viral bronchiolitis in infants and young children. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013, Issue 6. Art. No.: CD004878. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD004878.pub4).
  13. Wallace et al. Impact of oral corticosteroids on respiratory outcomes in acute preschool wheeze: a randomised clinical trial. Archives of Disease in Childhood2021;106:339-344.
  14. Tse SM et al. DOORWAY research group of the Pediatric Emergency Research in Canada (PERC) network. Genetic determinants of acute asthma therapy response in children with moderate-to-severe asthma exacerbations. Pediatric Pulmonology. 2019 Apr;54(4):378-385. doi: 10.1002/ppul.24247. Epub 2019 Jan 15.
  15. Morris et al. Which intravenous bronchodilators are being administered to children presenting with acute severe wheeze in the UK and Ireland? Thorax. 70(1):88-91. January 2015.
  16. Dasgupta et al. Myocarditis in the paediatric population: a review. Congenital Heart Disease. 2019;14:868–877.
  17. Kirk et al. The International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation Guidelines for the management of pediatric heart failure: Executive summary. The Journal of Heart and Lung Transplantation, Vol 33, No 9, September 2014
  18. Robinson et al. Intravenous immunoglobulin for presumed viral myocarditis in children and adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2020 Aug 19;8:CD004370. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD004370.pub4. PMID: 32835416.
  19. Ghelani et al. Demographics, trends and outcomes in pediatric acute myocarditis in the United States 2006 to 2011. Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes. 2012; 5:622-627.

Sepsis 2020

Cite this article as:
Emma Lim. Sepsis 2020, Don't Forget the Bubbles, 2021. Available at:
https://doi.org/10.31440/DFTB.32392

Where do we start?

Fever and suspected sepsis is our bread and butter. This post will take you through a whirlwind 2020 sepsis update. We’ll cover what sepsis is, how to recognize deterioration and the recent management updates in light of the new 2020 International Surviving Sepsis Campaign Guidelines1.

For me, it is all about “What keeps me up at night?” and there are two things I worry about. The first is missing cases of suspected sepsis.  Think back to all those hot, miserable children you sent home over your career and the heart sink you feel when someone says, “Remember that child you sent home yesterday?”.  My second worry is making bad choices; making mistakes about how much fluid to give or which antibiotics to choose or when to start inotropes.

What is sepsis?

Let’s start at the beginning. How do you get sepsis? A bacterial or viral infection causes a systemic, inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS). We are used to seeing children who have a fever and a fast heart rate or respiratory rate and a raised white cell count, for example with bronchiolitis. A certain proportion of those children will go on to get sepsis but not a lot.

Spotting sepsis in the paediatric ED is like a game of Where’s Wally: there are a whole lot of hot febrile children with accompanying hot cross parents. Fever is common but sepsis is rare – at a quick glance they all look like Wally, but, of course, there is actually only one real one and it takes a bit of time and patience to find him. It is the same with all those children with fever: around 55% have self-limiting viral infections, only 7-13% have serious bacterial infection (SBI)2-4 and only 1% have sepsis. The picture’s different in PICU; 10% of PICU admissions are for sepsis. The 2015 SPROUT study5 looked at 569 children in PICU with sepsis (8.2% point prevalence). 40% were caused by respiratory infections and 19% percent by bloodstream infections. A quarter (25%) of them died.

That quote “7-13% of febrile children have a serious bacterial infection” seems high. There are predefined criteria (such as pneumonia, urinary tract infection, meningitis, osteomyelitis, septic arthritis), but in a reductionist sense, sepsis is any infection that makes a child so unwell that they are admitted to hospital for more than 72 hours and need IV antibiotics. But, the need for admission is very subjective and dependent on the experience of the doctor and the parents’ level of concern.  The goal posts are constantly shifting.  Ten years ago, we would admit children with osteoarticular infections for 6 weeks of IV antibiotics. Now they can be in and out within 72 hours (with most of their course given orally). That doesn’t mean the infections have got less severe, it’s just that our treatments have changed.  And is a urinary tract infection over a year of age really a serious infection?  Most will get treated with a short course of oral antibiotics, as will children with pneumonia.  Because that’s a whole other controversy; reporting focal consolidation on a X ray is art not science and has been shown to be famously unreliable in double blind studies.  So if we remove children who have simple pneumonia, urinary tract infections in older children,  skin and soft tissue infections that do not have positive cultures, the number of true SBI is quite a lot less than the quoted 1 in 10.

Unbelievably, there is no good definition of ‘sepsis’ in paediatrics6, so we tend to use the adult Sepsis 3 definition7 which states:

“Sepsis is life threatening organ dysfunction caused by a dysregulated host immune response to infection including renal, respiratory, hepatic dysfunction or metabolic acidosis”. A small proportion of children or young people with sepsis will go into septic shock, where shock is defined as hypotension, or impaired perfusion requiring inotropes with a higher risk of death than sepsis.”

This doesn’t really help us spot sepsis early enough to prevent these children going into shock.  So far, there is no reliable way of pinpointing who these children are. However, there is some exciting news. 2020 has brought us new international evidence-based guidelines for the management of septic shock and sepsis associated organ dysfunction in children; the Surviving Sepsis Campaign.

This has been a huge piece of work by an incredible transatlantic consortium, including Mark Peters (for the horse’s mouth listen to our latest RCPCH Paediatric Sepsis Podcasts). I am going to take you through some of these recommendations, but I think everybody should read it themselves.  The consortium took 3 years and reviewed over 500 papers, but you only have to read this one paper, so go on, make your life easy!  

Spotting sepsis

Recommendation number one. In children who present acutely well, “we suggest implementing systematic screening for timely recognition.”

Take note of the word suggest. This means there is some, but not definitive, evidence. We all recognise systematic screening for sepsis is a huge problem for paediatricians. Most children with a fever have a self-limiting viral infection, and many of these children will have fever, tachycardia and tachypnoea. But most do not have sepsis.  However, if we use the UK-based NICE high-risk ‘Red Flag’ criteria, these children are all flagged as potentially having sepsis. They over-trigger, shown by a 2020 paper by Ruud Nijman which showed that 41% of all febrile children in PED present with warning signs of sepsis3. If you look at this paper in some detail, 50% of children aged 1-2 years triggered the NICE red high-risk category for tachycardia alone. This mirrors data from a local audit from the Great North Children’s Hospital Emergency Department, conducted between April and June of 2017. Of 868 patients, 5% had serious bacterial infections, but 50% triggered NICE high-risk criteria. Sam Romaine from Alderhey Children’s Hospital, and part of Enitan Carrol’s group, looked at 12,241 patients and again, 55% triggered NICE high risk criteria8. For a full critical review of Ruud’s paper, take a look at our Searching for Sepsis post.

The NICE high risk criteria have a very high sensitivity but limited specificity, which means although they ‘over-trigger’, if a child doesn’t have any red flags then they are potentially ‘good to go’, helping inform safe discharge.

Is there a better score?

For a long time, adults have used the Q-SOFA score, a quick sepsis related organ failure assessment. Typically, this adult score has performed poorly in children. Enitan Carroll’s group have looked at a modified Q-SOFA score called the LQ-SOFA score (L for Liverpool), modified to predict critical care admission rather than sepsis. Critical care admission is a more common outcome than sepsis, particularly relevant because this helps us understand which children are at risk of deterioration. The modified score, is made up of four simple, straightforward criteria, including capillary refill, AVPU (that’s Alert, Verbal, only to Pain or Unresponsive), heart rate and respiratory rate, purposefully not including blood pressure, making this quick and easy to use as a screening tool. But what did they find? Carroll’s group compared five different scores that could help us predict sepsis or deterioration: lactate, CRP, adult Q-SOFA, NICE and LQ-SOFA. Lactate performed the least well, CRP and Q-SOFA a little bit better, NICE high-risk criteria better again, but best of all was the LQ-SOFA score. 

This work suggests that there are more sensitive tools out there, but these need to be combined with some way of de-escalating children who trigger because most of these children have a SIRS response from a self-limiting viral infection and not sepsis. De-escalation is usually done by ‘a senior review,’ with the intention of differentiating the hot and bothered child who has a viral infection from early sepsis.

Listen to parents

There are many examples of systematic screening protocols, the best being electronic scores. But they are not perfect.  Most importantly, the good ones listen to parents. Parental concern or health professional concern is particularly important for children with complex medical conditions: neurodisability, recurrent chest infections, those with indwelling lines or fed by gastrostomy. These children often don’t have typical signs and symptoms that health care professionals associate with infections or sepsis, often presenting with nothing more than their parents saying that they’re not well or not quite themselves. These children can be hypothermic (due to hypothalamic dysfunction) and run ‘cold’ so when they get an infection, their temperature may goes up to ‘normal’ (37 degrees), not triggering at all. The presenting signs can be very, very subtle like not tolerating their feed, or vomiting, or they may just be miserable and unhappy. This is why any escalation tool or score must in some way include parental concern. The NICE sepsis guidelines from 2017 tells us to pay particular attention to ‘concerns expressed by parents, families or carers’, for example, changes from usual behaviour.’  We must not underestimate the expertise of parents and we should incorporate them into the team of people caring for their children.

Doctors can be wary of parental concern but if we look at a systematic review of family-initiated escalation of care for the deteriorating patients in hospital, we can see that this wariness is unfounded.  Gill et al 20169 looked at a systematic review of ten articles (all descriptive studies) over ten years evaluating response systems for patients and families; five described a triaged response; five reported systems for families to directly activate the rapid response team. There were a total of 426 family-initiated calls, range 0.17 to 11 per month, with no deaths reported. All calls were deemed to be appropriate and three calls resulted in intensive care unit admissions.”

I believe there is evidence that parents only escalate when they need to.  As one of our parents of a child with a complex medical condition said;

Please listen to us when we say something is not right, we can see subtle changes in children, in our children, in their health and behaviour. That may not be apparent to the casual observer or even health professionals like yourselves and children like them cannot speak for themselves. Therefore, as parents, we have to ensure that we advocate for them in the strongest possible terms. We do not think we are better than the team, nor are we full of our own importance. But we are simply trying to give a voice to our children as they don’t have one of their own.”

What do you do next?

The Surviving Sepsis campaign developed a management algorithm for children, and while it is useful, there’s a lot of information, for many different teams in a small space. Firstly, when you look closely, the lower half (in black) is actually all about management in a Paediatric Intensive Care (PICU) setting -treatment of refractory shock and advanced haemodynamic monitoring. For paediatric emergency physicians, there is a lot that has to happen first! Let’s break it down.

The first thing that the international guidelines asks us to do is get intravenous or intraosseous access. Please only have three tries at getting intravenous access and if this isn’t successful, go straight to intraosseous access. It’s a great safe route and can be much easier to get than intravenous especially in children with complex medical conditions whom may be difficult to cannulate. Although it may feel like using an IO in an awake child will be traumatic , flushing with 0.5mg/kg of 2% lignocaine before you infuse fluids, antibiotics and other drugs, will reduce the pain.

Test, tests, tests

Recommendation number two. Get a blood culture.

This should always be your next priority, as long as it does not delay treatment. Let’s just think for a moment about blood cultures. Blood cultures are old technology. They were developed in the 1950s and have not really changed since. Traditionally, blood cultures are read at 48 hours but often don’t give any definitive answer. The European Union Childhood Life-threatening Infectious Disease Study (EUCLIDS)10 was a prospective, multi-centre, cohort study of 2844 children under 18  with sepsis (or suspected sepsis) or severe focal infections, admitted to 98 hospitals across Europe and incredibly in 50% of patients the causative organism remained unidentified! Alasdair Munroe explains more in his blood culture post.

What we really want is a point of care test, a test that takes less than 60 minutes, that can quickly differentiate between viral and bacterial infections at the child’s bedside11. Andreola et al12 (and more recent studies by Ruud Nijman again) looked at febrile children and infants in Emergency Departments and this is what they found:

White cell counts, we know, are not helpful. A raised white cell count has poor sensitivity and specificity, so while CRP is better and PCT better still there is room for improvement.  All these tests have problems with sensitivity which means there is still going to be a worrying number of falsely negative tests.  We know this, for example, in children with diseases that progress quickly like meningococcaemia or sepsis who can have normal inflammatory markers early on.

However, new tests are on the horizon. The PERFORM/IRIS group published a diagnostic test using a two-transcript host RNA signature that can discriminate between bacterial and viral infections in febrile children (Herberg, JAMA 2016), using gene arrays to demonstrate up or down regulation of protein expression. Sensitivity in the validation group was 100% and specificity 96.4%13.  

But we don’t just want to know if a child has a bacterial or viral infection, we really want a clinical predictor of severity that could tell us which children are going to get very ill.  We have a few tests, but they’re not very specific. We often look at blood gases, looking for a metabolic acidosis. But that is very broad. What about a lactate >2mmol/l? The international guidelines did not recommend the use of lactate as the evidence is lacking, although it can give an idea of the trend and whether a child is getting better or worse and is generally considered to be best practice and is already standard in adult sepsis. But this is in direct contrast to a study by Elliot Long and team published earlier this year14 looking at predictors of organ dysfunction in over 6000 children presenting to the ED with fever. A lactate of 4 or higher was one of the best performing ED predictor of new organ dysfunction, the need for inotropic support and the need for mechanical ventilation. Take a look at Deirdre Philbin’s DFTB review of the study.

More new tests are coming.  For example, interleukin 6 and 10 may be able to predict which children with febrile neutropenia have serious infections and mid regional pro-adrenoedullin (MR pro-ADM) may be a promising biomarker to predict sepsis and septic shock15. So, watch this space!

Antibiotics

Recommendation number three. Start broad-spectrum antibiotics.

Moving on from tests to treatment, we now want to look at recommendation number three, when to start broad-spectrum antibiotics. There is a change in timing here.

In children with septic shock, antimicrobial therapy should be started as soon as possible and within one hour of recognition of sepsis.”  But, in children with suspected sepsis (i.e. organ dysfunction, but not shock), most of the children we see, guidelines suggest starting antimicrobial treatment as soon as possible after evaluation – you have 3 hours not 1 hour16.

This is important, because it gives you a chance to do tests and decide whether the child in front of you has sepsis or just a SIRS response due to a viral infection. This has bigger implications than just saving hospital beds, because we know timely initial empirical antibiotics will save lives, but unnecessary antibiotic use for all children with fevers increases antibiotic side effects, antibiotic resistance and cost.

Antibiotic choice

There are other recommendations around antibiotics. Importantly, the new consensus recommends a broad-spectrum antibiotic therapy with one single drug in normal children, such as  cefotaxime or ceftriaxone or, if they are allergic, meropenem.

As a quick aside, let’s think about penicillin allergy.

It’s important to get a history and to understand what a ‘real’ penicillin allergy is. We see a lot of children who present with a vague story of having been given a couple of doses of penicillin many years ago, who developed a rash and have been labelled as ‘penicillin allergic’.  But doing that in the heat of the moment can be tricky.

Zagursky believes “Avoidance of cephalosporins, when they are the drug of choice in a penicillin-allergic individual, results in significant morbidity that outweighs the low risk of anaphylaxis. We conclude that there is ample evidence to allow the safe use of cephalosporins in patients with isolated confirmed penicillin or amoxicillin allergy”17

Studies have found the risk of crossover between penicillin/cephalosporin reactions is <1%, so using cephalosporins as a first line is safe.  If the child also has cephalosporin sensitivity, they may need a carbapenem like meropenem.  Later, please think about referring these children to your local allergy service for penicillin or cephalosporin de-labelling, which entails having an antibiotic challenge under controlled, safe circumstances.

Moving on… antibiotics in immunocompromised children

The guidelines suggest using empiric multi-drug therapy in children with immunocompromise and those at high risk for multi-drug resistant pathogens. In this case, you might choose piperacillin-tazobactam and, if shock is present, amikacin. You can add teicoplanin if you suspect a line infection, with rigors when flushing the line, or a line site infection, with redness around their exit site, or signs of any soft tissue cellulitis.

The recommendations also cover antimicrobial stewardship. Once the pathogen and sensitivities are available, the guidelines recommend narrowing antimicrobial therapy coverage. This means narrowing down the antibiotic to something specific to the clinical presentation, site of infection, or risk factors.  Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is the child is showing clinical improvement?
  • Can they have their antibiotics at home? (via a paediatric out-patient antibiotic service)
  • Can they switch to oral antibiotics?
  • Can they stop their antibiotics?  If you don’t find any bugs, and the child is well, then the guidelines recommend stopping antimicrobial therapy.

Remember to phone a friend

Infectious disease teams or microbiologists; you never need to make decisions alone. The guidelines recommended daily assessment with clinical laboratory assessment for de-escalation of antimicrobial therapy. Assessment includes a review of the ongoing indication for antibiotics after the first 48 hours and should be guided by results from microbiology, signs of clinical improvement and evidence of reducing inflammatory markers, such as a halving of CRP, or if the child’s fever has settled for more than 24 hours.

Fluids

Moving on from antibiotics to fluids. The Surviving Sepsis Campaign has another paediatric management algorithm for fluid and vasoactive drugs. It’s also quite busy, incorporating the results of the FEAST study18.  It’s split into two, a green side and a blue side. The green side is for children who live in healthcare systems without intensive care, while the blue side is healthcare systems with paediatric intensive care. The change boils down to being more cautious with fluids.  The guidelines recommend 10-20 ml/kg boluses. I suggest giving 10 ml/kg and then reassessing for signs of fluid overload with hepatomegaly and listening for basal crackles suggesting pulmonary oedema, repeating a second or third bolus as needed.  I use 10 ml/kg because it’s the same in sepsis, in neonates and in trauma.

If the child needs more volume, give them more volume; you can repeat 10ml/kg boluses up to 40 ml/kg or more as needed just use smaller aliquots.  Remember there may still be children who need big volumes of fluid early on, and we have PICU readily available and the technology to support children’s circulation and ventilation and ‘dry them out’ later.  There isn’t enough evidence to fluid restrict children with sepsis in the ‘resource rich’ world just yet but trials are ongoing. The Squeeze Canadian Critical Care Group19 has started a study, so watch this space for results.

Which fluids should you choose?

Please use crystalloids not colloids. And although historically we have used 0.9% saline, it is better to choose balanced or buffered solutions such as Ringer’s lactate or Plasmalyte. Too much saline can cause hyperchloremic acidosis.   

Inotropes

There has been a real sea change in our approach with inotropes. As we’re being more cautious with fluid resuscitation, we need to start giving inotropes earlier. After giving 40 to 60 ml/kg have your inotrope lined up ready to go.  There is good evidence that the drug of choice should be adrenaline20.  You can give adrenaline via a peripheral intravenous cannula or an intra osseous cannula safely if you don’t have central access. There have also been studies in adults that showed that peripheral adrenaline is also safe, especially when given for less than four hours or in a diluted dose.

Safety netting

Most of the febrile children we see will be discharged; safe discharge is a big priority because that’s what the majority of hot bothered children need: good advice and home care.  Winters (2017)21 looked at 33,000 children who were discharged from Emergency Departments with abnormal vital signs. 27,000 (80%) of them were discharged with normal vital signs, with only one case of potentially preventable permanent disability (a child who presented with tummy pains and came back with torsion of the testes, unlucky). 5,500 children (16%) were discharged with abnormal vital signs; there were no permanent disability or deaths from this group. So, you can send children home with fevers safely. But, the proviso to this is they need good safety netting on discharge, including both verbal and written information. This is one of the NICE recommendations. Our discharge safety netting leaflet22, which (gives some straightforward, practical information about giving anti-pyretic medication like paracetamol and ibuprofen), works like a ‘parent’s PEWS’ chart. It allows parents to see if their child is OK to stay at home or if they’re at some risk and should contact the GP, go to a walk in centre or call 111-advice line if they haven’t got better in 48 hours.  If the child is on the ‘high risk’ side, we want to see them back in the Paediatric Emergency Department.

In summary…

So, in summary, please screen for sepsis, we should all be doing it. I don’t know the best systems to help you but, ideally, you should have electronic observations, protocols and local guidelines.  Be aware that in the ED the incidence of sepsis is rare and that recent surviving sepsis campaign guidance suggests you can safely observe while you make a decision on treatment. Give antibiotics within 60 minutes in septic shock, but in sepsis with no shock you have three hours. If you are treating use fluid cautiously, with 10-20 ml/kg boluses and frequent reassessments.  Start adrenaline early if appropriate, and this can be given safely, peripherally.  Finally, safety netting is essential.

Thank you very much for reading this right through to the end! If you want to hear more, please have a listen to our Paediatric Sepsis podcast, hosted by the RCPCH.

Selected references

  1. Surviving Sepsis Campaign International Guidelines for the Management of Septic Shock and Sepsis-Associated Organ Dysfunction in Children. Weiss SL et al. Pediatr Crit Care Med. 2020 Feb;21(2):e52-e106. doi: 10.1097/PCC.0000000000002198.PMID: 32032273
  2. Craig JC et al. The accuracy of clinical symptoms and signs for the diagnosis of serious bacterial infection in young febrile children: prospective cohort study of 15 781 febrile illnesses. BMJ. 2010;340:c1594 10.1136/bmj.c1594
  3. Nijman RG et al. Clinical prediction model to aid emergency doctors managing febrile children at risk of serious bacterial infections: diagnostic study. BMJ. 2013;346:f1706 10.1136/bmj.f1706
  4. van de Maat J et al. Antibiotic prescription for febrile children in European emergency departments: a cross-sectional, observational study. Lancet Infect Dis. 2019;19:382–91. 10.1016/S1473-3099(18)30672-8
  5. Weiss SL et al. Sepsis Prevalence, Outcomes, and Therapies (SPROUT) Study Investigators and Pediatric Acute Lung Injury and Sepsis Investigators (PALISI) Network. Global epidemiology of pediatric severe sepsis: the sepsis prevalence, outcomes, and therapies study. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2015 May 15;191(10):1147-57. doi: 10.1164/rccm.201412-2323OC. Erratum in: Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2016 Jan 15;193(2):223-4. PMID: 25734408; PMCID: PMC4451622.
  6. International pediatric sepsis consensus conference: definitions for sepsis and organ dysfunction in pediatrics. Goldstein B, Giroir B, Randolph A; International Consensus Conference on Pediatric Sepsis.Pediatr Crit Care Med. 2005 Jan;6(1):2-8. doi: 10.1097/01.PCC.0000149131.72248.E6. PMID: 15636651 Review
  7. Developing a New Definition and Assessing New Clinical Criteria for Septic Shock: For the Third International Consensus Definitions for Sepsis and Septic Shock (Sepsis-3). Shankar-Hari M et al. Sepsis Definitions Task Force. JAMA. 2016 Feb 23;315(8):775-87. doi: 10.1001/jama.2016.0289. PMID: 26903336
  8. Romaine ST et al. Accuracy of a Modified qSOFA Score for Predicting Critical Care Admission in Febrile Children. Pediatrics. 2020 Oct;146(4):e20200782. doi: 10.1542/peds.2020-0782. PMID: 32978294; PMCID: PMC7786830.
  9. Gill FJ et al. The Impact of Implementation of Family-Initiated Escalation of Care for the Deteriorating Patient in Hospital: A Systematic Review. Worldviews Evid Based Nurs. 2016 Aug;13(4):303-13. doi: 10.1111/wvn.12168. Epub 2016 Jun 3. PMID: 27258792.
  10. Martinón-Torres F et al. EUCLIDS Consortium. Life-threatening infections in children in Europe (the EUCLIDS Project): a prospective cohort study. Lancet Child Adolesc Health. 2018 Jun;2(6):404-414. doi: 10.1016/S2352-4642(18)30113-5. Epub 2018 Apr 28. PMID: 30169282.
  11. Herberg JA et al. IRIS Consortium. Diagnostic Test Accuracy of a 2-Transcript Host RNA Signature for Discriminating Bacterial vs Viral Infection in Febrile Children. JAMA. 2016 Aug 23-30;316(8):835-45. doi: 10.1001/jama.2016.11236. Erratum in: JAMA. 2017 Feb 7;317(5):538. PMID: 27552617; PMCID: PMC5997174.
  12. Andreola, B et al. Procalcitonin and C-Reactive Protein as Diagnostic Markers of Severe Bacterial Infections in Febrile Infants and Children in the Emergency Department, The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal: August 2007 – Volume 26 – Issue 8 – p 672-677. doi: 10.1097/INF.0b013e31806215e3
  13. Herberg JA et al. Diagnostic Test Accuracy of a 2-Transcript Host RNA Signature for Discriminating Bacterial vs Viral Infection in Febrile Children. JAMA. 2016 Aug 23-30;316(8):835-45. doi: 10.1001/jama.2016.11236. Erratum in: JAMA. 2017 Feb 7;317(5):538. PMID: 27552617; PMCID: PMC5997174.
  14. Long E, Solan T, Stephens DJ, et al. Febrile children in the Emergency Department: Frequency and predictors of poor outcome. Acta Paediatr. 2020; 00: 1– 10 
  15. Xia T, Xu X, Zhao N, Luo Z, Tang Y. Comparison of the diagnostic power of cytokine patterns and procalcitonin for predicting infection among paediatric haematology/oncology patients. Clin Microbiol Infect. 2016 Dec;22(12):996-1001. doi: 10.1016/j.cmi.2016.09.013. Epub 2016 Sep 22. PMID: 27665705.
  16. Elke G et al. SepNet Critical Care Trials Group. The use of mid-regional proadrenomedullin to identify disease severity and treatment response to sepsis – a secondary analysis of a large randomised controlled trial. Crit Care. 2018 Mar 21;22(1):79. doi: 10.1186/s13054-018-2001-5. PMID: 29562917; PMCID: PMC5863464.
  17. Zagursky RJ, Pichichero ME. Cross-reactivity in β-Lactam Allergy. J Allergy Clin Immunol Pract. 2018 Jan-Feb;6(1):72-81.e1. doi: 10.1016/j.jaip.2017.08.027. Epub 2017 Oct 7. PMID: 29017833.
  18. Maitland K et al. FEAST Trial Group. Mortality after fluid bolus in African children with severe infection. N Engl J Med. 2011 Jun 30;364(26):2483-95. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1101549. Epub 2011 May 26. PMID: 21615299.
  19. Parker, M.J., Thabane, L., Fox-Robichaud, A. et al. A trial to determine whether septic shock-reversal is quicker in pediatric patients randomized to an early goal-directed fluid-sparing strategy versus usual care (SQUEEZE): study protocol for a pilot randomized controlled trial. Trials 17, 556 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13063-016-1689-2
  20. Ramaswamy KN, Singhi S, Jayashree M, Bansal A, Nallasamy K. Double-Blind Randomized Clinical Trial Comparing Dopamine and Epinephrine in Pediatric Fluid-Refractory Hypotensive Septic Shock. Pediatr Crit Care Med. 2016 Nov;17(11):e502-e512. doi: 10.1097/PCC.0000000000000954. PMID: 27673385.
  21. Winter J, Waxman MJ, Waterman G, Ata A, Frisch A, Collins KP, King C. Pediatric Patients Discharged from the Emergency Department with Abnormal Vital Signs. West J Emerg Med. 2017 Aug;18(5):878-883. doi: 10.5811/westjem.2017.5.33000. Epub 2017 Jul 19. PMID: 28874940; PMCID: PMC5576624.
  22. Lim E, Mistry RD, Battersby A, Dockerty K, Koshy A, Chopra MN, Carey MC, Latour JM. “How to Recognize if Your Child Is Seriously Ill” During COVID-19 Lockdown: An Evaluation of Parents’ Confidence and Health-Seeking Behaviors. Front Pediatr. 2020 Nov 17;8:580323. doi: 10.3389/fped.2020.580323. PMID: 33313025; PMCID: PMC7707121.