Many people have never heard of sepsis, or they don’t know what it is. But sepsis is one of the top 10 causes of disease-related death in the United States. The condition can arise suddenly and progress quickly, and it’s often hard to recognize.
Sepsis was once commonly known as “blood poisoning.” It was almost always deadly. Today, even with early treatment, sepsis kills about 1 in 5 affected people. It causes symptoms such as fever, chills, rapid breathing, and confusion.
Anyone can get sepsis, but the elderly, children, and infants, are most vulnerable. People with weakened immune systems, severe burns, physical trauma, or long-term illnesses (such as diabetes, AIDS, cancer, or liver disease) are also at increased risk.
Sepsis actually springs from 2 factors: first an infection (such as pneumonia or a urinary tract infection), and then a powerful and harmful response by your body’s own immune system when chemicals trigger widespread inflammation leading to blood clots and leaky blood vessels. In severe cases, one or more organs fail. In the worst cases, blood pressure drops, weakening the heart, and the patient goes into septic shock— and the patient could die.
Signs of Sepsis
Sepsis can be hard to spot, because its early symptoms are similar to many other conditions. Medical personnel look for these signs:
- Fever or low body temperature (hypothermia)
- Rapid breathing and heart rate
- Difficulty breathing
- Skin rash
- Confusion and disorientation
- Light-headedness caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure
Doctors will look for these signs and they may also do a blood test for an abnormal number of white blood cells or the presence of bacteria or infection. They may also do a chest X-ray or a CT scan to locate an infection.
Causes of Sepsis
Sepsis is a major challenge in hospitals, where it’s one of the leading causes of death. It is also a main reason why people are readmitted to the hospital. Sepsis occurs unpredictably and can progress rapidly. Invasive medical procedures such as inserting a tube into a vein can can introduce bacteria into the bloodstream, causing the condition. But sepsis can also come from an infection in the lungs, urinary tract, skin (from a cut) or abdomen (including the appendix).
Typically, sepsis patient need to be treated in a hospital intensive care unit where doctors try to stop the infection, protect vital organs, and prevent a drop in blood pressure. Treatment almost always includes antibiotics, medications, and fluids. More serious cases may require a breathing tube, kidney dialysis, or surgery to remove an infection. There is not a medication that specifically targets the aggressive immune response seen with sepsis.
Many people who survive severe sepsis recover completely, and their lives return to normal. But some people, especially those with pre-existing chronic diseases, may have permanent organ damage. For example, in someone who already has impaired kidneys, sepsis can lead to kidney failure that requires lifelong dialysis.
There is also some evidence that severe sepsis disrupts a person’s immune system, making him or her more at risk for future infections. Studies have shown that people who have experienced sepsis have a higher risk of various medical conditions and death, even several years after the episode.
One reason that sepsis is on the rise is due to antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria change in a way that reduces the effectiveness of drugs, chemicals, or other agents designed to cure or prevent infections. The bacteria survive and continue to multiply, causing more harm.
Here is what you can do to help prevent antibiotic resistance:
- Tell your healthcare professional you are concerned about antibiotic resistance.
- Ask your healthcare professional if there are steps you can take to feel better and get symptomatic relief without using antibiotics.
- Take the prescribed antibiotic exactly as your healthcare professional tells you.
- Discard any leftover medication.
- Ask your healthcare professional about vaccines recommended for you and your family to prevent infections that may require an antibiotic.
- Never skip doses.
- Never take an antibiotic for a viral infection like a cold or the flu.
- Never pressure your healthcare professional to prescribe an antibiotic.
- Never save antibiotics for the next time you get sick.
- Never take antibiotics prescribed for someone else.