Blood Poisoning: Causes, Symptoms & Diagnosis
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Blood Poisoning

What Is Blood Poisoning?

Key points

  1. Blood poisoning occurs when bacteria causing infection in your body enter your bloodstream. It does not involve actual poison.
  2. Symptoms include fever, chills, rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, and paleness. In some advanced cases there may also be confusion and little to no urine production.
  3. Prompt treatment of blood poisoning is essential because the infection can quickly become life-threatening.

Blood poisoning is a serious infection. It occurs when bacteria are in the bloodstream. Despite its name, the infection has nothing to do with poison. “Blood poisoning” isn’t a medical term, but medical professionals often use it to describe septicemia or sepsis.

Still, the name sounds dangerous, and for good reason. Sepsis is a serious, potentially fatal infection. Blood poisoning can progress to sepsis rapidly. Prompt diagnosis and treatment are essential for treating blood poisoning, but understanding your risk factors is the first step in preventing the condition.

What Causes Blood Poisoning?

Causes

Blood poisoning occurs when bacteria causing infection in another part of your body enter your bloodstream. The presence of bacteria in the blood is referred to as septicemia. The terms septicemia and sepsis are often used interchangeably. Technically they aren’t quite the same. Septicemia, the state of having bacteria in your blood, can lead to sepsis. Sepsis is a severe and often life-threatening state of infection if it’s left untreated.

Such infections most commonly occur in the lungs, abdomen, and urinary tract. Sepsis happens more often in hospitalized patients, where the risk of infection is already higher.

Since blood poisoning occurs when bacteria enter the blood in conjunction with another infection, you won’t develop sepsis without having an infection first. In fact, this condition can occur in people who are recovering from surgeries, dental extractions, and severe wounds. People with weakened immune systems are also at a greater risk, as well as young children and the elderly.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Blood Poisoning

Symptoms

The symptoms of blood poisoning include:

  • chills
  • moderate or high fever
  • rapid breathing
  • increased heart rate or palpitations
  • paleness

Some of these symptoms are associated with the flu or other illnesses. However, if you’ve had surgery recently or you’re recovering from a wound, it’s important that you call your doctor immediately after experiencing these possible signs of blood poisoning.

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

  • confusion
  • red spots on the skin
  • shock
  • little to no urine production

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

Diagnosis

It’s difficult to self-diagnose blood poisoning because its symptoms mimic those of other conditions. The best way to determine if you have septicemia is to see a doctor. First, your doctor will perform a physical exam, which will include checking your temperature and blood pressure.

If blood poisoning is suspected, your doctor will run tests to look for signs of bacterial infection. Septicemia can be detected with these tests:

  • blood culture testing
  • blood oxygen levels
  • blood count
  • clotting factor
  • urine tests including urine culture

Also, your doctor might see problems with liver or kidney function, as well as imbalances in electrolyte levels. If you have a skin wound, your doctor may take a sample of any fluids leaking from it to check for bacteria.

As a precaution, your doctor may also order an imaging scan. These can all help detect infection in your body’s organs:

  • X-rays
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan
  • ultrasound

If bacteria are present, identifying what type they are will help your doctor determine which antibiotic to prescribe to clear the infection.

Treatment Options for Blood Poisoning

Treatment

Prompt treatment of blood poisoning is essential because the infection can quickly spread to tissues or your heart valves. Once you’re diagnosed with blood poisoning, you’ll likely receive treatment as an inpatient at a hospital. If you’re showing symptoms of shock, you’ll be admitted to the intensive care unit. Signs of shock include:

  • paleness
  • rapid, weak pulse
  • rapid, shallow breathing
  • dizziness or unconsciousness

You may also receive oxygen and fluids intravenously to help you maintain a healthy blood pressure and to help your body get rid of the infection. Blood clots are another concern. You might receive plasma to correct this. Surgery is also needed in severe cases.

Medications are also used to treat blood poisoning. These can include 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

Outlook

Blood poisoning can be a deadly condition. According to the Mayo Clinic, septic shock has a 50 percent mortality rate. Even if treatment is successful, sepsis can lead to permanent damage. Your risk for future infections may also be greater.

The best way to prevent blood poisoning is to treat and prevent infections. It’s also important to prevent any open wounds from becoming infected in the first place with proper cleaning and bandaging. If you’ve had surgery, your doctor will likely prescribe an antibiotic as a precautionary measure against infections. It’s best to err on the side of caution and call your doctor.

You Asked, We Answered

  • What can I do to prevent getting an infection while in the hospital?
  • Hospital acquired infection can be serious and usually present as pneumonia, bloodstream infections, urinary infections, or wound infections. There are really no precautions you can take to prevent a hospital acquired infection before you are admitted to the hospital. During the hospital stay, however, maintaining good personal hygiene will help to decrease your risk for new infections. The nursing staff will assist you in tasks such as bathing, using the bathroom, and changing positions. Additional staff is available to sanitize your room and provide fresh linens. It is also important for you to participate in your recovery by getting out of bed and trying to resume normal activities of daily living as soon as possible. When it is appropriate, your doctor will order the removal of catheters, tubes, and IV’s. Some patients want to keep these devices for convenience, but their prolonged and inappropriate use puts patients at higher risk for infections. If you are unable to attend to your own personal hygiene or be an advocate for yourself due to your medical condition, your family should assist you. After discharge from the hospital, you should continue maintaining good personal hygiene and follow the doctor’s orders for post-hospital care and follow-up.  

    - Graham Rogers, MD

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