What is sepsis?
Sepsis is a life-threatening illness caused by your body’s
response to an infection. Your immune system protects you from many illnesses
and infections, but it’s also possible for it to go into overdrive in response
to an infection.
Sepsis develops when the chemicals
the immune system releases into the bloodstream to fight an infection cause
inflammation throughout the entire body instead. Severe cases of sepsis can
lead to septic shock, which is a
There are more than 1 million
cases of sepsis each year, according to the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC). This type of infection kills more than 258,000 Americans a year.
What are the symptoms of sepsis?
There are three stages of sepsis: sepsis, severe sepsis, and
septic shock. Sepsis can happen while you’re still in the hospital recovering
from a procedure, but this isn’t always the case. It’s
important to seek immediate medical attention if you have any of the below
symptoms. The earlier you seek treatment, the greater your chances of survival.
Symptoms of sepsis include:
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
You must have two of these symptoms before a doctor can
occurs when there’s organ failure. You must have one or
more of the following signs to be diagnosed with severe sepsis:
- patches of discolored skin
- decreased urination
- changes in mental ability
- low platelet (blood clotting cells) count
- problems breathing
- abnormal heart functions
- chills due to fall in body temperature
- extreme weakness
Symptoms of septic shock include the symptoms of severe
sepsis, plus a very low blood pressure.
The serious effects of sepsis
Although sepsis is potentially life-threatening, the illness
ranges from mild to severe. There's a higher rate of recovery in mild cases. Septic
shock has a 50 percent mortality rate, according to the Mayo Clinic. Having a case of severe sepsis
increases your risk of a future infection.
Severe sepsis or septic shock can also cause complications. Small blood clots can form throughout
your body. These clots block the flow of blood and oxygen to vital organs and
other parts of your body. This increases the risk of organ failure and tissue
What causes sepsis?
Any infection can trigger sepsis, but the following types of
infections are more likely to cause sepsis:
- abdominal infection
- kidney infection
- bloodstream infection
According to the CDC, the number of sepsis
cases in the United States increases every year. The
number of people hospitalized with sepsis between 2000 and 2008 increased from
621,000 to 1,141,000. Possible reasons for the increase include:
- an aging population because sepsis is more common
- an increase in antibiotic resistance, which
happens when an antibiotic loses its ability to resist or kill bacteria
- an increase in the number of people with
illnesses that weaken their immune systems
Who is at risk for sepsis?
Although some people have a higher risk of infection, anyone
can get sepsis. People who are at risk include:
- young children and seniors
- people with weaker immune systems, such as those
with HIV or those in chemotherapy treatment for cancer
- people being treated in an intensive care unit
- people exposed to invasive devices, such as
intravenous catheters or breathing tubes
How is sepsis diagnosed?
If you have symptoms of sepsis, your doctor will order tests
to make a diagnosis and determine the severity of your infection.
One of the first tests is a blood test. Your blood is checked for complications
- clotting problems
- abnormal liver or kidney function
- decreased amount of oxygen
- an imbalance in minerals called electrolytes
that affect the amount of water in your body as well as the acidity of your
Depending on your symptoms and the results of your blood test, your doctor may order
other tests, including:
- a urine test (to check for bacteria in your
- a wound secretion test (to check an open wound
for an infection)
- a mucus secretion test (to identify germs
responsible for an infection)
If your doctor can’t determine the source of an infection
using the above tests, your doctor may order an internal view of your body
using one of the following:
- X-rays to view the lungs
- computed tomography (CT) scans to view possible
infections in the appendix, pancreas, or bowel area
- ultrasounds to view infections in the
gallbladder or ovaries
- magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which can
identify soft tissue infections
How is sepsis treated?
Sepsis can quickly progress to septic shock and death if it
is left untreated. Doctors use a number of medications to treat sepsis,
- antibiotics via IV to fight infection
- vasoactive medications to increase blood
- insulin to stabilize blood sugar
- corticosteroids to reduce inflammation
Severe sepsis may
also require large amounts of IV fluids and a respirator for breathing.
Dialysis might be necessary if the kidneys are affected. Kidneys help filter
harmful wastes, salt, and excess water from the blood. In dialysis, a machine
performs these functions.
In some cases, surgery may be needed to remove the source of
an infection. This includes draining a pus-filled abscess or removing infected
It’s important to remember that sepsis is
a medical emergency. Every minute and hour counts, especially since the infection
can spread quickly. There’s no one symptom of sepsis, but rather
it has a combination of symptoms. Get immediate medical attention if you
suspect that you have sepsis, especially if you have a known infection.