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
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:
Fever and shaking chills or, alternatively, a very low body temperature