If you were told that there is a silent killer in the U.S. that takes the lives of up to half the people who get it each year — more than 250,000 people — would you know what it is? If you were told that it can strike anyone of any age and kills more people than prostate cancer, breast cancer, and AIDS combined, would that narrow it down?
According to medical experts, if you have no idea what the condition is, you’re like most Americans. Most people have never heard of sepsis, have no idea what it is, and don’t know what they can do about it.
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.
Once you have an infection, immune chemicals released into the blood to combat the infection cause tissue damage.
In severe cases, one or more organs fail. In the worst cases, blood pressure drops, the heart weakens, and the patient spirals toward septic shock. Once this happens, multiple organs — lungs, kidneys, liver — may quickly fail and the patient can die. 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.
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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 diagnose 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.
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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 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 diabetes or 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
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 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 the cold, flu, or pneumonia.
- Seek medical care if you have an infection that is not getting better or is getting worse.
Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 700 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations in central and western Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals.