What is sepsis?
Sepsis is a serious condition that
can result in organ damage or death. It happens when the body’s immune system has a
severe response to an infection. Sepsis is a medical emergency. It needs to be treated
Bacteria, viruses, and fungi can invade your body and cause disease. When your body senses one of these, the immune system responds. Your body releases certain chemicals into the blood that can help fight infection.
In some cases, the body has an
abnormal and severe response to infection. This can cause inflammation around the body
and damage your body’s cells. Blood clots may start to form all over the body. Some
blood vessels may start to leak. Blood flow and blood pressure may start to drop. This
harms the body’s organs by stopping oxygen and nutrients from reaching them. If this
process isn’t stopped, organs in the body can stop working. This can lead to death.
The term sepsis is used to define
any condition in which the body's organs stop working right and there is an infection.
Septic shock is when sepsis occurs along with changes to the circulatory, cellular, and
Sepsis is a common cause of death
in hospital intensive care units. It can affect people of all ages. But children and
older adults are at highest risk.
What causes sepsis?
Sepsis never happens on its own. It always starts with an infection somewhere in your body, such as:
Bacteria are the most common cause
of these infections. Viruses, parasites, and fungi can also cause them and lead to
sepsis. In some cases, the bacteria enter the body through a medical device such as a
blood vessel or urinary catheter. An infection that spreads around the body through the
bloodstream is more likely to cause sepsis. An infection in just one part of the body is
less likely to lead to sepsis.
Sepsis is sometimes called by the
nonmedical term blood poisoning. But this is misleading. Sepsis isn’t caused by
Who is at risk for sepsis?
Some health problems and other
conditions that affect your ability to fight infection can raise your risk for sepsis.
Babies, children, and older adults also have a higher risk of
Careful treatment of these health conditions may help reduce the risk of sepsis.
What are the symptoms of sepsis?
Symptoms and signs of sepsis can include:
Fever or abnormally low temperature
Rapid heart rate and breathing rate
Low blood pressure
Signs of reduced blood flow to one or more organs
The symptoms may vary depending on the severity of the sepsis. These symptoms may be mild at first and then quickly get worse.
How is sepsis diagnosed?
To diagnose sepsis, a healthcare
provider will ask about your medical history and your symptoms. Some of the symptoms of
early sepsis are the same as other health problems. This can make sepsis hard to
diagnose in its early stages. A full exam of the body is needed to help diagnose
You may also have tests, such as:
Urine tests to look for signs of infection in your urine, and check kidney function
Blood tests to looks for signs of infection in your blood
Imaging tests such as a chest X-ray,
CT scan, or other tests to look for the site of infection
A healthcare provider will often
suspect sepsis in a person with certain signs and symptoms. These include an abnormal
body temperature, rapid heart and breathing rate, and abnormal white blood cell count. A
healthcare provider can make an official diagnosis when there is a source of infection
and abnormal signs and symptoms point to organ problems. Septic shock is diagnosed when
the signs of organ dysfunction do not get better with treatment.
How is sepsis treated?
Treatment is done in a hospital’s
intensive care unit (ICU). This is because sepsis treatment needs very close monitoring.
Vital signs such as heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing will be constantly
watched. Blood and urine tests will be done often. Your condition will be closely
watched and your treatment adjusted as often as needed.
The source of the sepsis must be
treated. At first, you will often be treated with one or more antibiotics that work on
many types of bacteria. Results of culture and sensitivity testing can identify a
specific type of bacteria and the appropriate antibiotic. Pockets of infection may need
to be drained. These are called abscesses. In some cases, an infected part of the body
may need to be removed with surgery.
Along with antibiotic treatment,
you will also need other types of treatments to help support the body, such as:
Extra oxygen, to keep up normal oxygen levels
IV (intravenous) fluids, to help bring
blood pressure and blood flow to organs back to normal
A breathing tube and a ventilator, if
you have trouble breathing
Dialysis, in case of kidney failure
Medicines to raise the blood
Other treatments to prevent problems such as deep vein thrombosis and pressure ulcers
Insulin to keep blood sugars in the
optimal range, even in you don't have a history of diabetes
Most people with mild sepsis do get
better. But even with intense treatment, some people die from sepsis. Up to half of all
people with severe sepsis will die from it.
What are possible complications of sepsis?
Many people survive sepsis without
any lasting problems. Other people may have serious problems from sepsis, such as organ
damage. Some possible complications of sepsis are:
Tissue death (gangrene) of fingers or toes that may require amputation
Permanent lung damage from acute respiratory distress syndrome
Permanent brain damage, which can cause memory problems or more severe symptoms
Later problems with your immune
system, which can raise the risk for future infections
Damage to the heart valves
(endocarditis), which can lead to heart failure
When should I call my healthcare provider?
Seek care right away if you or
someone else has symptoms of sepsis. Early diagnosis and treatment can help improve the
chances of a good recovery. After recovery, you may be more prone to infections and
other illnesses. Call or see your healthcare provider right away at the first signs of
an infection or illness.
Key points about sepsis
Sepsis is a serious medical condition that can result in organ damage or death. It happens when the body’s immune system has a severe response to an infection.
Sepsis is a medical emergency. It
needs to be treated right away.
Possible signs and symptoms of sepsis
include fever, confusion, trouble breathing, rapid heart rate, and very low blood
Sepsis is treated with antibiotics, oxygen, and IV fluids as
soon as possible. Other treatments such as kidney dialysis, breathing support, or
surgery may also be needed.
Sepsis can cause serious
complications. These include kidney failure, gangrene, and death.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.