Septic shock is a possible consequence of bacteremia, or bacteria in the bloodstream. Bacterial toxins, and the immune system response to them, cause a dramatic drop in blood pressure, preventing the delivery of blood to the organs. Septic shock can lead to multiple
Causes and symptoms
During an infection, certain types of bacteria can produce and release complex molecules, called endotoxins, that may provoke a dramatic response by the body's immune system. Released in the bloodstream, endotoxins are particularly dangerous, because they become widely dispersed and affect the blood vessels themselves. Arteries and the smaller arterioles open wider, increasing the total volume of the circulatory system. At the same time, the walls of the blood vessels become leaky, allowing fluid to seep out into the tissues, lowering the amount of fluid left in circulation. This combination of increased system volume and decreased fluid causes a dramatic decrease in blood pressure and reduces the blood flow to the organs. Other changes brought on by immune response may cause coagulation of the blood in the extremities, which can further decrease circulation through the organs.
Septic shock is seen most often in patients with suppressed immune systems, and is usually due to bacteria acquired during treatment at the hospital. The immune system is suppressed by drugs used to treat cancer, autoimmune disorders, organ transplants, and diseases of immune deficiency such as AIDS. Malnutrition, chronic drug abuse, and long-term illness increase the likelihood of succumbing to bacterial infection. Bacteremia is more likely with preexisting infections such as urinary or gastrointestinal tract infections, or skin ulcers. Bacteria may be introduced to the blood stream by surgical procedures, catheters, or intravenous equipment.
Toxic shock syndrome most often occurs in menstruating women using highly absorbent tampons. Left in place longer than other types, these tampons provide the breeding ground for Staphylococcus bacteria, which may then enter the bloodstream through small tears in the vaginal lining. The incidence of toxic shock syndrome has declined markedly since this type of tampon was withdrawn from the market.
Septic shock is usually preceded by bacteremia, which is marked by fever, malaise, chills, and nausea. The first sign of shock is often confusion and decreased consciousness. In this beginning stage, the extremities are usually warm. Later, they become cool, pale, and bluish. Fever may give way to lower-than-normal temperatures later on in sepsis.
Other symptoms include:
- rapid heartbeat
- shallow, rapid breathing
- decreased urination.
- reddish patches in the skin
Septic shock may progress to cause "adult respiratory distress syndrome," in which fluid collects in the lungs, and breathing becomes very shallow and labored. This condition may lead to ventilatory collapse, in which the patient can no longer breathe adequately without assistance.
Diagnosis of septic shock is made by measuring blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration rate, as well as by a consideration of possible sources of infection. Blood pressure may be monitored with a catheter device inserted into the pulmonary artery supplying the lungs (Swan-Ganz catheter). Blood cultures are done to determine the type of bacteria responsible. The levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and acidity in the blood are also monitored to assess changes in respiratory function.
Septic shock is treated initially with a combination of antibiotics and fluid replacement. The antibiotic is chosen based on the bacteria present, although two or more types of antibiotics may be used initially until the organism is identified. Intravenous fluids, either blood or protein solutions, replace the fluid lost by leakage. Coagulation and hemorrhage may be treated with transfusions of plasma or platelets. Dopamine may be given to increase blood pressure further if necessary.
Respiratory distress is treated with mechanical ventilation and supplemental oxygen, either using a nose-piece or a tube into the trachea through the throat.
Identification and treatment of the primary infection site is important to prevent ongoing proliferation of bacteria.
Septic shock is most likely to develop in the hospital, since it follows infections which are likely to be the objects of treatment. Because of this, careful monitoring and early, aggressive therapy can minimize the likeli-hood of progression. Nonetheless, death occurs in at least 25% of all cases.
The likelihood of recovery from septic shock depends on may factors, including the degree of immuno-suppression of the patient, underlying disease, promptness of treatment, and type of bacteria responsible. Mortality
The risk of developing septic shock can be minimized through treatment of underlying bacterial infections, and prompt attention to signs of bacteremia. In the hospital, scrupulous aseptic technique on the part of medical professionals lowers the risk of introducing bacteria into the bloodstream.
Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. Ed. Anthony S. Fauci, et al. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.
The Merck Page. 13 Apr. 1998 <http://www.merck.com>.
Bacteremia—Invasion of the bloodstream by bacteria.