What is Sepsis?

Blood infected with parasites - 3D composition

Sepsis affects 30 million people each year. It is the leading cause of death for infants and children around the world, despite the fact that early diagnosis followed by broad spectrum antibiotics and IV fluids is all that is required to save a life. In the United States, sepsis affects more that 1 million Americans annually and kills more than 258,000. It leaves thousands of survivors with life-changing disabilities.

What is sepsis?

Sepsis is the body’s extreme and life-threatening response to an infection. The body releases chemicals into the blood stream to fight the infection but these chemicals trigger inflammatory responses throughout the body which can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death.
Sepsis ranges from less to more severe. The goal is to identify and treat sepsis in its earliest stage, before it becomes more dangerous. As sepsis worsens, blood flow to vital organs, such as brain, heart and kidneys, becomes impaired and blood clots can form, leading to organ failure and tissue death. In the most severe cases, blood pressure drops, multiple organs fail, and the patient can die quickly from septic shock. Sepsis can progress very rapidly and is always a medical emergency.

What causes sepsis?

Sepsis is always triggered by an infection. Bacterial, viral or fungal infections anywhere in your body can cause sepsis, although bacterial infections are the most common cause. An infection occurs when germs enter a person’s body and multiply.

The infection can begin anywhere bacteria or other infectious agents can enter the body, including a scraped knee, a tooth abscess, or from a more serious medical problem such as appendicitis, pneumonia, meningitis, or a urinary tract infection.

Who can get sepsis?

Sepsis does not discriminate. It affects young and old, rich and poor, sick and healthy. Anyone can get sepsis at any time as a bad outcome from an infection.

Those at higher risk of developing sepsis include:

  • People with weakened immune systems
  • Babies and very young children
  • Elderly people
  • People with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, AIDS, cancer, and kidney or liver disease
  • People suffering from a burn or wound
  • People who have invasive devices, such as intravenous catheters or breathing tubes

What are the symptoms of sepsis?

Sepsis presents itself as a combination of symptoms, rather than a single sign.

If two of the following signs are present, seek immediate medical assistance.

  • A fever above 101ºF or a temperature below 96.8ºF
  • Heart rate higher than 90 beats per minute
  • Breathing rate higher than 20 breaths per minute
  • Probable or confirmed infection

Here is a helpful graphic showing common signs of sepsis. It can be downloaded and printed or shared electronically.

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What should I do if I think I have an infection or sepsis?

An emergency department sign.

  • Sepsis is a medical emergency. Call your doctor or go to the emergency room immediately if you have any signs or symptoms of sepsis.
  • Make sure you ask your nurse or doctor, “Could this be sepsis?”
  • Sepsis is a common complication of people hospitalized for other reasons, including minor outpatient surgeries. If you are continuing to feel worse or not getting better in the days after surgery, ask your doctor about the possibility of sepsis.

Rack of tubes with blood samples, laboratory microscope and laboratory technician moving with another tray

How is sepsis diagnosed?

Doctors diagnose sepsis by checking for fever, increased heart rate, and increased breathing rate. A blood test will show if there is an abnormal white blood cell count – a common indicator of sepsis. Doctors may also test blood and other bodily fluids such as urine and sputum for the presence of bacteria and other infectious agents. X-ray and scans may be performed to identify or confirm the source of the infection.

How is sepsis treated?Injection under medical observation

Doctors treat sepsis with antibiotics as soon as possible. Many patients receive oxygen and intravenous (IV) fluids to keep the vital organs working and prevent a drop in blood pressure.

Assisted breathing or kidney dialysis may also be necessary. Sometimes surgery is required to remove tissue damaged by the infection or limbs that have succumbed to gangrene.

Are there any long-term effects of sepsis?

If treated swiftly, many people recover from sepsis and their lives return to normal. Some who survive may have impaired physical or neurocognitive functioning, mood disorders, and a low quality of life. Also, an episode of severe sepsis may place you at higher risk of future infections. The mortality rate for septic shock is nearly 50 percent.

How can I prevent sepsis?

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Sepsis is not completely preventable but you can reduce the likelihood of developing sepsis by:

  • Getting vaccinated
  • Preventing infections that can lead to sepsis by cleaning wounds, even minor ones such as scrapes and blisters
  • Washing hands regularly
  • Being vigilant if you have an infection and remaining alert for the signs of sepsis.