What is Sepsis?

Sepsis is caused by your body’s defense system (immune system) working overtime to fight infection. It’s sometimes called septicemia.

The large number of chemicals released into the blood during this process triggers widespread inflammation. This can lead to organ damage. Blood clotting during sepsis reduces blood flow to limbs and internal organs. This deprives them of nutrients and oxygen. In severe cases, one or more organs may fail.

In the worst cases, sepsis leads to a life-threatening drop in blood pressure. Doctors call this “septic shock.” It can quickly lead to the failure of several organs -- lungs, kidneys, and liver. This can be fatal in some cases.

Sepsis Causes and Risk Factors

Bacterial infections are most often to blame. But sepsis can also result from other infections. It can begin anywhere bacteria or viruses enter the body. So, it could sometimes be caused by something as minor as a scraped knee or nicked cuticle. If you have a more serious medical problem such as appendicitis, pneumonia, meningitis, or a urinary tract infection, you’re also at risk.

If you have an infection of the bone, called osteomyelitis, it could lead to sepsis. In people who are hospitalized, the bacteria that trigger sepsis can enter the body through IV lines, surgical incisions, urinary catheters, and bed sores.

Anyone can get it, but certain groups of people are at greater risk. They include:

  • People whose immune systems are not working well due to illnesses like HIV/AIDS or cancer
  • People who take drugs that suppress the immune system, like steroids and those used to prevent rejection of transplanted organs
  • Very young babies
  • The elderly, especially those with other health problems
  • People who have recently been hospitalized and/or had major surgeries
  • People with diabetes

Sepsis Symptoms

Because it can begin in different parts of the body, this illness can have many different symptoms. The first signs may include rapid breathing and confusion. Other common warning signs include:


Sepsis Treatment

If your doctor believes you might have sepsis, he’ll do an exam and run tests to look for the following:

If you do have sepsis, your doctor will likely place you in the hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU). There, he’ll try to stop the infection, keep vital organs functioning, and regulate your blood pressure (IV fluids and extra oxygen can help with this).

Once your doctor knows for sure what’s causing your sepsis, he’ll put you on medicine that targets that specific germ. Often, doctors prescribe vasopressors (drugs that cause the blood vessels to narrow) to improve blood pressure.

If your case is severe, you might need other types of treatment, like a breathing machine or kidney dialysis. Sometimes surgery is needed to drain or clean an infection.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on May 07, 2019



Scripps Research Institute: "Sepsis."

Cleveland Clinic: "Sepsis Overview."

National Institute of General Medical Sciences: "Sepsis Fact Sheet."

MedlinePlus.gov: "Septic Shock," "Septicemia."

University of Maryland Medical Center: "Sepsis-Overview."

NYU Langone Medical Center: "Blood Poisoning."

Institute for Transfusion Medicine: "DIC, Inflammation, Sepsis and Activated Protein C (APC)."

National Institute of General Medical Sciences: "Sepsis Fact Sheet."

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