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What Is Sepsis? Symptoms and Treatment Information

If you’ve been hospitalized with a serious illness or for a medical procedure, your medical team was watching you closely for signs of infection.

Infections that occur in the hospital can lead to many harmful conditions. Sepsis is among the most serious of these.

What Is Sepsis?

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that can occur when there is an infection in your body.

If your body is working hard to fight an infection, your immune system releases infection-fighting chemicals into your bloodstream.  These not only fight the infection, but can trigger a response throughout the body causing inflammation and changes that can damage multiple organ systems.

When this severe infection response causes harm to your own organs, it is called sepsis, which is defined as a life-threatening condition that arises when the body’s response to an infection injures its own tissues and organs.

In the worst cases, your circulation is affected. This is called septic shock, which is when your blood pressure drops to life-threatening levels. Septic shock is fatal in up to 50 percent of patients who experience it.

According to the National Institutes of Health, more than one million Americans are diagnosed with sepsis each year.

You can take simple steps to help prevent sepsis, including washing your hands, keeping cuts and wounds clean, taking medication—especially antibiotics—as prescribed by your doctor, and receiving your annual flu vaccine.

Learn more about sepsis

Causes of Sepsis

Any infection in your body can lead to sepsis, though most infections clear up when quickly and properly treated.

Lung, skin, kidney, and abdominal infections are more likely to cause sepsis. Although sepsis is not contagious, some infectious illnesses can result in sepsis.

To diagnosis sepsis, your doctors will ask about symptoms and perform a series of tests, which may include blood tests, an x-ray, or CT scan.

Sepsis Symptoms: Knowing the Signs of Sepsis

Sepsis can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages, as the symptoms can be similar to other conditions.

Doctors look for two or more of the following symptoms before diagnosing sepsis:

  • A fast heart rate above 90 beats per minute
  • A rapid Breathing rate above 22 breaths per minute
  • An existing infection, which is evident when a blood test shows very high or very low white blood count levels
  • Body temperature above 101 degrees Fahrenheit or below 96.8 degrees Fahrenheit

Other symptoms that you may recognized include:

  • Changes in mental status, such as confusion or disorientation
  • Shivering or chills
  • Clammy or sweaty skin
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling “off” or the worst you have ever felt
  • Severe pain or discomfort

If you have any of these sepsis symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.

Sepsis Treatment: Learning About Your Care Options

When sepsis is detected, doctors work quickly to treat the infection. They may use any of the following treatments, depending on your specific case:

  • Intravenous antibiotics
  • Intravenous fluids to help correct blood pressure
  • Insulin to stabilize blood sugar

If you have a case of sepsis or especially septic shock, it may require life-saving measures. You may need the high level of care provided by an Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

Some people who have had sepsis experience complications after being released from the hospital. If that happens to you, talk to your doctor about ways to relieve any remaining symptoms.

The sooner you are treated for sepsis, the greater your likelihood of survival. However, survival rates also depend on the cause of sepsis, pre-existing conditions, and your overall health.

Risk Factors for Sepsis

People with a greater risk for sepsis include:

  • Newborn babies, especially those who are premature or have a low birth weight
  • Those older than 65, especially if they have chronic illness like diabetesor high blood pressure
  • People with diseases that weaken their immune system, such as HIV/AIDS or cancer
  • Patients being treated in an intensive care unit
  • Patients with feeding tubes or breathing tubes

You can reduce your risk of infection and developing sepsis through good hygiene and staying up to date on vaccinations. If you have an infection that’s not getting better or is getting worse, seek immediate medical care. Being aware of and alert to the symptoms of sepsis could save your life.

How You Can Prevent Sepsis

You can take basic steps to help prevent sepsis.

  • Get the flu vaccine every year. Wash your hands frequently and avoid contact with those with the cold and flu.
  • To prevent pneumonia, meningitis, or other infections, get the pneumococcal vaccine.
  • Be sure to clean wounds and scrapes
  • Don’t smoke or use your tobacco products. Those who do not smoke are less likely to get the cold, flu, or pneumonia.