Doctors and nurses should treat sepsis as urgently as they would a heart attack, a prominent health watchdog has said.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has said medical professionals must do more to check for signs of sepsis in patients with infections, like they would rule out heart problems if someone was suffering from chest pains.

A life-threatening condition, 44,000 people die from sepsis annually – and there are delays in diagnosing more than a third of the 150,000 cases seen each year.

Sepsis, often called septicaemia or blood poisoning, occurs when the body’s immune system goes into overdrive as it tries to fight an infection.

Under new NICE guidelines, GPs are being advised to send any patients who might have sepsis to hospital in an ambulance so they can be seen by a senior doctor or nurse immediately to start treatment.

Initial symptoms can include fast breathing and a fast heartbeat – but more severe symptoms such as low blood pressure, slurred speech, nausea and vomiting can quickly develop.

Unless sepsis is quickly treated with antibiotics, the condition can cause multiple organ failure and death.

Professor Saul Faust, the chairman of the group which developed the new NICE guidelines, said: “Sepsis can be difficult to diagnose with certainty. We want clinicians to start asking ‘could this be sepsis?’ much earlier on so they can rule it out or get people the treatment they need.

“Just like most people with chest pain are not having a heart attack, the majority of people with an infection will not have sepsis. But if it isn’t considered, the diagnosis can be missed.”

The updated guidance has been welcomed by Melissa Mead, whose 12-month-old son William died after GPs, out-of-hours services and a 111 call handler failed to diagnose sepsis caused by an underlying chest infection and pneumonia.

“The awareness of sepsis among health professionals and the public is severely lacking, so joined-up thinking and action is necessary to drive down the number of fatalities from sepsis,” she said.