What Is Sepsis?
Sepsis is when your body has an unusually severe response to an infection. It’s sometimes called septicemia.
During sepsis, your immune system, which defends you from germs, releases a lot of chemicals into your blood. This triggers widespread inflammation that can lead to organ damage. Clots reduce blood flow to your limbs and internal organs, so they don’t get the nutrients and oxygen they need.
In severe cases, sepsis causes a dangerous drop in blood pressure. Doctors call this “septic shock.” It can quickly lead to organ failure, such as your lungs, kidneys, and liver. This can be deadly.
Sepsis Causes and Risk Factors
Bacterial infections are most often to blame for sepsis. But it can also happen because of other infections. It can begin anywhere bacteria, parasites, fungi, or viruses enter your body, even something as small as a hangnail.
An infection of the bone, called osteomyelitis, could lead to sepsis. In people who are hospitalized, bacteria may enter through IV lines, surgical wounds, urinary catheters, and bed sores.
Sepsis is more common in people who:
- Have weakened immune systems because of conditions like HIV or cancer or because they take drugs such as steroids or those that prevent rejection of transplanted organs
- Are pregnant
- Are very young
- Are elderly, especially if they have other health problems
- Were recently hospitalized or had major surgeries
- Use catheters or breathing tubes
- Have diabetes
- Have a serious medical condition such as appendicitis, pneumonia, meningitis, cirrhosis, or a urinary tract infection
Because it can begin in different parts of your body, sepsis can have many different symptoms. The first signs may include rapid breathing and confusion. Other common symptoms include:
- Fever and chills
- Very low body temperature
- Peeing less than usual
- Fast heartbeat
- Nausea and vomiting
- Fatigue or weakness
- Blotchy or discolored skin
- Sweating or clammy skin
- Severe pain
Your doctor will do a physical exam and run tests to look for things like:
- Bacteria in your blood or other body fluids
- Signs of infection on an X-ray, CT scan, or ultrasound
- A high or low white blood cell count
- A low number of platelets in your blood
- Low blood pressure
- Too much acid in your blood (acidosis)
- A lack of oxygen in your blood
- Problems with how your blood clots
- Uneven levels of electrolytes
- Kidney or liver problems
Your doctor will probably keep you in the hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU). Your medical team will try to stop the infection, keep your organs working, and manage your blood pressure. IV fluids and extra oxygen can help with this.
Broad-spectrum antibiotics may fight infections caused by bacteria early on. Once your doctor knows what’s causing your sepsis, they can give you medicine that targets that specific germ. Often, doctors prescribe vasopressors (which make your blood vessels narrow) to improve blood pressure. You could also get corticosteroids to fight inflammation or insulin to keep control of your blood sugar.
If your case is severe, you might need other types of treatment, like a breathing machine or kidney dialysis. Or you may need surgery to drain or clean out an infection.
As sepsis gets worse, it causes more problems throughout your body. These may include:
- Kidney failure
- Dead tissue (gangrene) on fingers and toes, leading to amputation
- Lung, brain, or heart damage
- A higher risk of infections over time
Sepsis can be deadly in between 25% and 40% of cases.
Preventing infection is the best way to prevent sepsis. Take these steps:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds each time.
- Keep up with recommended vaccines for things like flu and chickenpox.
- Keep control of any chronic health conditions.
- If you have an injury that’s broken your skin, clean it as soon as possible. Keep it clean and covered as it heals, and watch for signs of infection.
- Treat any infections. Get medical care right away if they don’t get better or if they seem like they’re getting worse.