Expert Health Articles

Sepsis

Colleen AbramsColleen Abrams

Infection Preventionist, Blanchard Valley Health System 

Sepsis is a serious medical condition caused by an overwhelming immune response to infection. It occurs when chemicals released into the blood to fight infection trigger widespread inflammation. That inflammation may result in organ damage. Blood clotting during sepsis reduces blood flow to limbs and internal organs, depriving them of nutrients and oxygen. In severe cases (severe sepsis), one or more organs fail. In the worst cases, infection leads to a life-threatening drop in blood pressure, called septic shock, which can quickly lead to the failure of several organs. 

Sepsis can be deadly. It kills more than 258,000 Americans each year and leaves thousands of survivors with life-changing after effects. According to the CDC, there are more than 1 million cases of sepsis each year. Sepsis can happen to anyone, at any time, from any type of infection, and can affect any part of the body. 

Bacterial infections are the most common cause of sepsis. However, sepsis can also be caused by other infections. The infection can begin anywhere bacteria or other infectious agents enter the body, such as from something as seemingly harmless as a scraped knee to a more serious medical problem such as appendicitis, pneumonia, meningitis or a urinary tract infections. Sepsis may accompany infection of the bone, called osteomyelitis. In hospitalized patients, common sites of initial infections include IV lines, surgical incisions, urinary catheters and bed sores.

Although anyone can get sepsis, certain groups of people are at greater risk:

  • 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 severe burn or wound

There is no single sign or symptom of sepsis. It is a combination of symptoms. Rapid breathing and a change in mental status, such as reduced alertness or confusion, may be the first signs that sepsis is starting. Other common symptoms include:

  • Fever and shaking chills or a very low body temperature
  • Decreased urination
  • Rapid pulse
  • Rapid breathing
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea

The first step to successful treatment for sepsis is quick diagnosis. If sepsis is suspected, the doctor will perform an exam and run tests to look for:

  • Bacteria in the blood or other body fluids
  • Source of the infection, using imaging technology such as X-ray or CT scan
  • A high or low white blood cell count
  • Low blood pressure
  • Too much acid in the blood (acidosis)
  • Altered kidney or liver function

People with sepsis are usually treated in the hospital. Physicians try to treat the infection, keep vital organs working, and prevent a drop in blood pressure. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are given as soon as possible. Many patients receive oxygen and intravenous fluids to maintain normal blood oxygen levels and blood pressure. Once the infectious agent is identified, the doctor can use a more specific antibiotic.  Depending on the severity and effects of sepsis, other types of treatment, such as a breathing machine or kidney dialysis, may be needed. Sometimes surgery is necessary to drain or clean an infection.

You can take steps to prevent sepsis. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Get vaccinated against the flu, pneumonia and other infections that could lead to sepsis. Talk to you doctor for more information.
  • Prevent infections that can lead to sepsis by cleaning scrapes and wounds and practicing good hand hygiene.
  • If you have an infection, look for signs like fever, chills, rapid breathing and heart rate, rash, confusion and disorientation. Call your doctor or go to the emergency room immediately if you have any of these signs or symptoms. 

You can find additional information on sepsis at cdc.gov/sepsis or sepsis.org