Blood Poisoning

Written by April Khan and Marijane Leonard | Published on August 16, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Overview

Blood poisoning, also called septicemia, is an infection caused by the presence of bacteria in the bloodstream. Although it is commonly called "blood poisoning," the infection actually has nothing to do with poison. According to Dr. James M. Steckelberg, a Mayo Clinic internist, “blood poisoning” is not actually a medical term, but medical professionals often use it to describe septicemia.

Septicemia is associated with infection elsewhere in your body. It is a serious condition. It can progress rapidly and cause death. Seek medical attention immediately if you suspect septicemia.

What Causes Blood Poisoning?

Blood poisoning occurs when bacteria causing infection in another part of your body enter your bloodstream. Infection in your lungs, abdomen, and urinary tract are commonly linked to septicemia.

Sometimes you develop blood poisoning at the same time as another infection. It can also occur before certain infections. These timings are associated with:

Recognizing the Symptoms Blood Poisoning

Symptoms of blood poisoning include:

  • chills
  • high fever
  • rapid breathing
  • increased heart rate
  • paleness

Advanced symptoms of blood poisoning may be life threatening and include:

  • confusion
  • red spots on the skin
  • shock
  • little to no urine output (in some cases)

Blood poisoning can lead to respiratory distress syndrome and septic shock. If the condition isn’t treated right away, these complications can lead to death.

Diagnosing Blood Poisoning

It is difficult to self-diagnose blood poisoning. Its symptoms mimic those of other conditions. The best way to determine if you have septicemia is to see a physician.

Physical Examination

To arrive at a diagnosis, your physician will perform a physical examination. It will include checking your temperature and blood pressure. The following tests can also help your doctor diagnose septicemia.

Blood Tests

Different blood tests show the presence of bacteria in the blood, blood oxygen levels, clotting factor, blood count, problems with liver or kidney functioning, and imbalances in your electrolyte levels caused by infection.

Urine Test

A urine test can show the presence of bacteria in your urine or a urinary tract infection.

Wound Testing

If you have a skin wound, your physician may take a sample of any fluids leaking from it to check for bacteria.

Scans

Your physician may order an imaging scan, such as an X-ray, computed tomography (CT) scan, ultrasound, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to look for infection in your body’s organs.

If bacteria are present, identifying their type will help the physician determine which antibiotic to prescribe to clear the infection.

Treatment Options for Blood Poisoning

Once you are diagnosed with blood poisoning, you will likely receive treatment as an inpatient at a hospital. If you are showing symptoms of shock (such as paleness, rapid but weak pulse, and rapid, shallow breathing), you will be admitted to the intensive care unit to receive around-the-clock care.

You may receive oxygen to improve your breathing. You’ll also receive fluids intravenously to help you maintain a healthy blood pressure and to aid your body in ridding itself of the infection. If you have a blood clotting disorder associated with the infection, you will receive blood plasma to correct it.

Medications used to treat blood poisoning are antibiotics, vasopressors, and insulin. Vasopressors may be used to increase your blood pressure if it drops too low. Insulin is used to help restore normal blood sugar levels.

Long-Term Outlook

Blood poisoning can be a deadly condition. Depending on the type of bacterium causing the infection, the death rate can be more than 50 percent. Prompt treatment at a hospital is key to survival.

Can I Prevent Blood Poisoning

One way to prevent blood poisoning is to be treated for any infections you may have. Being up-to-date with vaccines is another preventive measure. This is especially important for children.

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