Have you heard of the silent killer in the U.S. that kills nearly 270,000 people every year? It can strike people of any age, often without any notice. And rates are going up every year.
That silent killer is sepsis. Most Americans have never heard of sepsis. They have no idea what it is or what to do about it.
But knowing the signs of sepsis could save your life or the life of someone you love.
What Is Sepsis?
Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that can occur when you have an infection.
When your body is fighting an infection, your immune system releases chemicals into your bloodstream to help combat it. Sometimes these chemicals can trigger a response that causes inflammation throughout your body. Your immune response goes a bit haywire and can damage multiple organ systems.
In severe cases, one or more organs fail. In the worst cases, the patient’s blood pressure drops, their heart weakens, and the person ends up in septic shock. At this point, major organs (such as the lungs, kidneys, and liver) may quickly fail.
Septic shock kills up to half of the patients who develop it. The only way to prevent it is to catch the signs early enough to get fast treatment. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 1 million Americans receive a diagnosis of sepsis each year.
What Are the Two Stages of Sepsis?
The two stages of sepsis are sepsis and septic shock.
The early signs of sepsis often seem minor or look like other less serious conditions. Doctors diagnose sepsis when you have at least two of these symptoms:
- A fever higher than 100.4 F.
- A heart rate higher than 90 beats per minute.
- A breathing rate greater than 20 breaths per minute.
- A suspected or definite infection.
This stage is sometimes called systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS).
Septic shock occurs when your blood pressure remains very low even when you have received enough fluids. Symptoms include:
- A rapid heartbeat.
- A low body temperature.
- Rapid breathing.
The faster you receive treatment for septic shock, the better your chances of survival are. Every hour without treatment reduces the likelihood of surviving. Even people who receive treatment may have permanent organ damage or long-term problems from septic shock.
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Causes of Sepsis
Any infection in your body can lead to sepsis, though most infections clear up when treated quickly and properly. The most common cause of sepsis is an infection caused by bacteria. The following infections lead to sepsis more often than others:
- Pneumonia and other respiratory infections.
- Bloodstream infection.
- Urinary infection.
- Lung, skin, kidney, or abdominal infection.
Only about 2% to 4% of sepsis cases occur because of an infection with a virus, fungus, or parasite. To diagnose sepsis, your doctors will ask about symptoms and perform a series of tests, which may include blood tests, an x-ray, or a CT scan.
What Are the Risk Factors for Sepsis?
Several groups have a higher risk for sepsis than average:
- Adults over age 65.
- People with chronic health conditions, including diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, and lung disease.
- People with cancer.
- People with weakened immune systems due to uncontrolled HIV, AIDS, an immune disease, or medication that suppresses the immune system.
- Pregnant people.
- People who have had sepsis before.
Risk of sepsis also increases with the following:
- Taking steroids medication.
- Severe burns (where most or all skin is missing).
- Severe physical trauma.
- Major surgery.
- Being in the hospital for an extended period of time.
- Wearing a catheter for an extended period.
- Being on dialysis.
- Having a feeding tube or breathing tube.
- Treatment in the ICU.
Sepsis can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages because the symptoms look similar to those of other conditions.
Doctors look for two or more of the following symptoms before diagnosing sepsis:
- A fast heart rate (above 90 beats per minute).
- Rapid breathing (above 20 breaths per minute).
- An existing infection. (A doctor will know you have an existing infection if a blood test shows you have a low white blood cell count.)
- Body temperature above 100.4 F or below 96.8 F.
Other symptoms that you may recognize include:
- Feeling confused.
- 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.
How Long Does Sepsis Take to Develop?
The timeline for sepsis can vary for different people. Sepsis can occur very rapidly after an infection starts, sometimes within 24 hours of infection. But it can also develop long after an infection starts.
Once the symptoms of sepsis appear, the patient needs treatment as soon as possible. Some infections need treatment within one to two hours of the first symptoms to prevent long-term organ damage.
Can You Have Sepsis and Not Know It?
It is possible to have sepsis and not know it. Many symptoms of sepsis look like symptoms from other conditions — and you may not know you have an infection. If you have one or two symptoms of sepsis, you should call a doctor right away.
When Should You See a Doctor if You Suspect Sepsis?
You should go to the emergency department (ED) immediately if you think you or someone you know has sepsis. If you do not have a healthy person who can drive you drive you to the ED right away, call an ambulance or 911.
- Confusion or disorientation.
- Shortness of breath.
- High heart rate.
- Fever, shivering, or feeling cold.
- Extreme pain or discomfort.
- Clammy or sweaty skin.
Treating sepsis starts with stopping the infection that caused it. This nearly always means receiving antibiotics to fight a bacterial infection. The medications may be different if doctors confirm you have a viral or fungal infection.
Doctors work quickly to treat the infection after they detect sepsis. They may also use any of these treatments:
- IV fluids to help correct blood pressure.
- Insulin to stabilize blood sugar.
- A ventilator to provide oxygen.
- Surgery to remove damaged tissue.
- Medication to raise blood pressure.
The sooner you receive treatment for sepsis, the more likely it is that you’ll survive. Survival also depends on what caused the sepsis, other conditions you have, and your overall health.
Some people who have had sepsis later have complications after going home from the hospital. If that happens to you, ask your doctor how to treat any symptoms.
Can Sepsis Be Cured?
Doctors can often cure sepsis before damage to organs occurs. People who receive treatment as soon as possible after symptoms appear usually do not have long-term damage.
How long it takes to cure sepsis depends on the patient and the infection. It usually takes at least several days to cure the infection. If the bacteria is resistant to antibiotics, it can take longer.
The average length of a hospital stay for sepsis is 4 to 5 days. The average stay for severe sepsis is 6 to 7 days. The average stay for septic shock is 16 to 17 days.
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 illnesses like diabetes or high blood pressure.
- People with diseases that weaken their immune system, such as HIV/AIDS or cancer.
- Patients who are receiving treatment in an intensive care unit.
- Patients with feeding tubes or breathing tubes.
How You Can Prevent Sepsis
You can take basic steps to help prevent sepsis.
- Know the symptoms of sepsis so you can recognize it.
- Get the flu vaccine every year.
- Wash your hands frequently and avoid people who have a cold or the flu.
- Stay home if you feel sick.
- To prevent pneumonia, meningitis, or other infections, get the pneumococcal vaccine.
- Practice good overall hygiene.
- Be sure to clean wounds and scrapes. Do not pick scabs.
- Don’t smoke or use your tobacco products. Those who do not smoke are less likely to get a cold, flu, or pneumonia.
- Follow your doctor’s directions to manage any chronic conditions you have.
- See a doctor if you have an infection that’s not getting better or is getting worse.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
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About Infectious Diseases
If you have a disease caused by bacteria, fungi, parasite, or virus, the UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases can help. Our team of experts is specially trained in the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, including of HIV-AIDs, postsurgical and transplant infections, illnesses caused by international travel, and more. We research infectious diseases and participate in clinical trials to learn more and develop better treatment and prevention methods. Visit our website to find an expert near you.