What Is Septicemia?
Septicemia is a serious bloodstream infection. It’s also known as
bacteremia, or blood poisoning. Septicemia occurs when a bacterial infection
elsewhere in the body, such as in the lungs or skin, enters the bloodstream.
This is dangerous because the bacteria and their toxins can be carried through
the bloodstream to your entire body.
Septicemia can quickly become life-threatening. It must be
treated in a hospital. If it’s left untreated, septicemia can progress to
Septicemia and sepsis aren’t the same. Sepsis is a serious
complication of septicemia. Sepsis is when inflammation throughout the body
occurs. This inflammation can cause blood clots and block oxygen from reaching
vital organs, resulting in organ failure. The National
Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that over 1 million Americans get
severe sepsis each year. Between 28 and 50 percent of these patients may die
from the condition. When the inflammation occurs with extremely low blood pressure,
it’s called septic shock. Septic shock is fatal in many cases.
What Causes Septicemia?
Septicemia is caused by an infection in another part of your
body. This infection is typically severe. Many types of bacteria can lead to
septicemia. The exact source of the infection often can’t be determined. The
most common infections that lead to septicemia are:
- urinary tract infections
- lung infections, such as pneumonia
- kidney infections
- infections in the abdominal area
Bacteria from these infections enter the bloodstream and multiply
rapidly, causing immediate symptoms.
People who are already in the hospital for something else, such
as a surgery, are at a higher risk of developing septicemia. Secondary infections
can occur while in the hospital. These infections are often more dangerous
because the bacteria may already be resistant to antibiotics. You’re also at a
higher risk of developing septicemia if you:
- have severe wounds or burns
- are very young or very old
- have a compromised immune system, which can
occur from diseases such as HIV or leukemia
- have a urinary or intravenous catheter
- are on mechanical ventilation
- are receiving medical treatments that weaken
your immune system, such as chemotherapy or steroid injections
What Are the Symptoms of Septicemia?
The symptoms of septicemia usually start very quickly. Even in
the first stages of the illness, a person can look very sick. They may follow
an injury, surgery, or another localized (confined to one location) infection,
like pneumonia. The most common initial symptoms are:
- elevated body temperature (fever)
- very fast respiration
- rapid heart rate
More severe symptoms will begin to emerge as the septicemia
progresses without proper treatment. These include the following:
- confusion or inability to think clearly
- nausea and vomiting
- red dots that appear on the skin
- reduced urine volume
- inadequate blood flow (shock)
It’s crucial to get to the hospital right away if you or someone
else is showing signs of septicemia. Never take a “wait and see” approach or
try to treat the problem at home.
Complications of Septicemia
Septicemia has a number of serious complications. These complications
may be fatal if left untreated or if treatment is delayed for too long.
Sepsis occurs when your body has a strong immune response to the
infection. This leads to widespread inflammation throughout the body. It’s
called severe sepsis if it leads to organ failure. People with chronic
diseases, such as HIV or cancer, are at a higher risk of sepsis. This is
because they have a weakened immune system and can’t fight off the infection on
One complication of septicemia is a serious drop in blood
pressure. This is called septic shock. Toxins released by the bacteria in the
bloodstream can cause extremely low blood flow, which may result in organ or
tissue damage. Septic shock is a medical emergency. People with septic shock
are usually cared for in a hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU). You may need
to be put on a ventilator, or breathing machine, if you’re in septic shock.
Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)
A third complication of septicemia is acute respiratory distress
syndrome (ARDS). This is a life-threatening condition that prevents enough
oxygen from reaching your lungs and blood. According to the National Heart,
Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), ARDS is fatal in about one-third of
cases. It often results in some level of permanent lung damage. It can also
damage your brain, which can lead to memory problems.
How Is Septicemia Diagnosed?
Diagnosing septicemia and sepsis are some of the biggest
challenges facing doctors. It can be difficult to find the exact cause of the
infection. Diagnosis will usually involve a wide range of tests.
Your doctor will evaluate your symptoms and ask about your
medical history. They’ll perform a physical examination to look for low blood
pressure or body temperature. The doctor may also look for signs of conditions
that more commonly occur along with septicemia. These conditions include
pneumonia, meningitis, and cellulitis.
Your doctor may want to perform tests on multiple types of fluids
to help confirm a bacterial infection. These may include the following:
- wound secretions and skin sores
- respiratory secretions
Your doctor may look for your cell and platelet counts and also
order tests to analyze your blood clotting.
Your doctor may also look at the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels
in your blood if septicemia is causing you to have breathing issues.
If signs of infection are not obvious, your doctor may order test
to look more closely at specific organs and tissue, such as:
- CT scan
Treatment for Septicemia
Septicemia that has started to affect your organs or tissue function
is a medical emergency. It must be treated at a hospital. Many people with
septicemia are admitted to a hospital’s ICU for treatment and recovery.
Your treatment will depend on several factors, including:
- your age
- your overall health
- the extent of your condition
- your tolerance for certain medications
Antibiotics are used to treat the bacterial infection that’s
causing septicemia. There isn’t typically enough time to figure out which type
of bacteria is causing the infection. Initial treatment will usually use
“broad-spectrum” antibiotics. These are designed to work against a wide range
of bacteria at once. A more focused antibiotic may be used if the specific
bacterium is identified.
You may get fluids and other medications intravenously to
maintain your blood pressure or to prevent blood clots from forming. You may
also get oxygen through a mask or ventilator if you experience breathing issues
as a result of septicemia.
Is There Any Way to Prevent Septicemia?
Bacterial infections are the underlying cause of septicemia. See
a doctor right away if you think you have this condition. If your infection can
be effectively treated with antibiotics in the early stages, you may be able to
prevent the bacteria from entering your bloodstream. Parents can help protect
children from septicemia by ensuring they stay up to date with their
If you already have a compromised immune system, the following
precautions can help prevent septicemia:
- avoid smoking
- avoid illegal drugs
- eat a healthy diet
- wash your hands regularly
- stay away from people who are sick
What Is the Outlook?
When diagnosed very early, septicemia can be treated effectively
with antibiotics. Research efforts are focused on finding out better ways to diagnose
the condition earlier.
If you develop the symptoms of septicemia or sepsis after surgery
or an infection, seek medical care right away. Even with treatment, it’s
possible to have permanent organ damage. This is especially true for people
with pre-existing conditions that affect how well their immune systems work.
There have been many recent medical developments in diagnosis, treatment,
monitoring, and training for septicemia. This has helped reduce mortality rates.
According to a study published in Critical
Care Medicine, the hospital mortality rate from severe sepsis has decreased
from 47 percent (between 1991 and 1995) to 29 percent (between 2006 and 2009).