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Slideshow: What is Sepsis? Symptoms, Treatment, and More

Sepsis: The Basics

Sepsis is an extreme response to an infection. Your body sends a flood of chemicals into your bloodstream to fight the threat. This causes widespread inflammation which, over time, can slow blood flow and damage your organs. Sometimes sepsis can be life-threatening, especially if it moves to its later stages -- severe sepsis or septic shock. It's important to get help ASAP if you think you have it.


If you have sepsis, you already have a serious infection. Early symptoms include fever and feeling unwell, faint, weak, or confused. You may notice your heart rate and breathing are faster than usual. If it's not treated, sepsis can harm your organs, make it hard to breathe, give you diarrhea and nausea, and mess up your thinking.  

Who Gets Sepsis?

It’s most common among the elderly, people with a long-term illness (like diabetes or cancer), those with a weakened immune system, and babies less than 3 months old. If you have sepsis you’ll need to be in the hospital to get proper treatment.   

How Do You Get It?

You can't catch sepsis from someone else. It happens inside your body, when an infection you already have -- like in your skin, lungs, or urinary tract -- spreads or triggers an immune system response that affects other organs or systems. Most infections don't lead to sepsis.

Sepsis and Pregnancy

It's rare, but sepsis can happen when you're pregnant or shortly after pregnancy. Infections can come from bacteria that grow in the birth canal during pregnancy, or from an infection during vaginal births, cesarean sections, or abortions.

Sepsis From Wounds and Burns

Wounds, sores, or burns make sepsis more likely. When your skin is torn, bacteria on the outside can get inside. A burn that covers a large area can also throw your immune system out of whack. Most of the time, you're not going to get sepsis when you have a cut or wound. Your body can usually repair itself, with treatment from your doctor if needed.

Sepsis From MRSA

MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is a staph bacterial infection that resists many types of antibiotics. If it isn’t treated, it can turn into sepsis. When it’s on your skin, MRSA doesn’t cause any problems. But if it gets into your body through a wound, it can.

Septic Shock

The most severe stage of sepsis is called septic shock. The heart and circulatory system begin to fail, and blood pressure drops. This slows blood flow to all your organs, and they begin to do poorly.  You’ll be admitted to the hospital ICU to get around-the-clock care.  


To diagnose sepsis, your doctor will ask a lot of questions and examine you carefully.  Do you have a fever? What is your heart rate? Are you breathing fast? Are you thinking clearly, or are you confused? He’ll also do blood tests, and if needed urine tests, a chest X-ray, or CT scan. The earlier you find out and begin treatment, the better.


Early, aggressive treatment of sepsis is best.  You may be admitted to a regular hospital room or go to the ICU.  Your doctor will start you on antibiotics to fight the infection. You’ll also get IV fluids, oxygen, and medicine to keep your blood pressure from falling and to support your body.

After Sepsis

People with sepsis can fully recover, though they may be more likely to get it again.  Whether there are lasting effects depends in part on your age, whether you have a long-term disease, or how quickly you got treated for sepsis.  

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Sepsis (Blood Infection) and Septic Shock

Sepsis is a serious medical condition caused by an overwhelming immune response to infection. Chemicals released into the blood to fight infection trigger widespread inflammation.

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, one or more organs fail. In the worst cases, infection leads to a life-threatening drop in blood pressure, called septic shock. This can quickly lead to the failure of several organs -- lungs, kidneys, and liver -- causing death.

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Severe sepsis affects more than a million Americans each year. Up to half of these people will die from this condition.

The term sepsis is often used interchangeably with septicemia, a serious, life-threatening infection that gets worse very quickly and is often fatal.

Sepsis Causes and Risk Factors

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 can enter the body. It can result from something as seemingly harmless as a scraped knee or nicked cuticle or from a more serious medical problem such as appendicitis, pneumonia, meningitis, or a urinary tract infection.

Sepsis may accompany infection of the bone, called osteomyelitis. In hospitalized patients, common sites of initial infection include IV lines, surgical incisions, urinary catheters, and bed sores.

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

  • People whose immune systems are not functioning well due to illnesses such as HIV/AIDS or cancer or use of drugs that suppress the immune system, such as steroids and those used to prevent rejection of transplanted organs
  • Very young babies
  • The elderly, particularly if they have other health problems
  • People who have recently been hospitalized and/or had invasive medical procedures
  • People with diabetes

Sepsis Symptoms

Because sepsis can begin in different parts of the body, it can have many different 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:

Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on July 21, 2014

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