Sepsis is a life-threatening illness caused by your body’s response to an infection. Your immune system protects you from many illnesses and infections, but it’s also possible for it to go into overdrive in response to an infection.
Sepsis develops when the chemicals the immune system releases into the bloodstream to fight an infection cause inflammation throughout the entire body instead. Severe cases of sepsis can lead to septic shock, which is a medical emergency.
There are more than 1 million cases of sepsis each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This type of infection kills more than 258,000 Americans a year.
There are three stages of sepsis: sepsis, severe sepsis, and septic shock. Sepsis can happen while you’re still in the hospital recovering from a procedure, but this isn’t always the case. It’s important to seek immediate medical attention if you have any of the below symptoms. The earlier you seek treatment, the greater your chances of survival.
Symptoms of sepsis include:
- a fever above 101ºF or a temperature below 96.8ºF
- heart rate higher than 90 beats per minute
- breathing rate higher than 20 breaths per minute
- probable or confirmed infection
You must have two of these symptoms before a doctor can diagnose sepsis.
Severe sepsis occurs when there’s organ failure. You must have one or more of the following signs to be diagnosed with severe sepsis:
- patches of discolored skin
- decreased urination
- changes in mental ability
- low platelet (blood clotting cells) count
- problems breathing
- abnormal heart functions
- chills due to fall in body temperature
- extreme weakness
Symptoms of septic shock include the symptoms of severe sepsis, plus a very low blood pressure.
Although sepsis is potentially life-threatening, the illness ranges from mild to severe. There's a higher rate of recovery in mild cases. Septic shock has a 50 percent mortality rate, according to the Mayo Clinic. Having a case of severe sepsis increases your risk of a future infection.
Severe sepsis or septic shock can also cause complications. Small blood clots can form throughout your body. These clots block the flow of blood and oxygen to vital organs and other parts of your body. This increases the risk of organ failure and tissue death (gangrene).
Any infection can trigger sepsis, but the following types of infections are more likely to cause sepsis:
- abdominal infection
- kidney infection
- bloodstream infection
According to the CDC, the number of sepsis cases in the United States increases every year. The number of people hospitalized with sepsis between 2000 and 2008 increased from 621,000 to 1,141,000. Possible reasons for the increase include:
- an aging population because sepsis is more common in seniors
- an increase in antibiotic resistance, which happens when an antibiotic loses its ability to resist or kill bacteria
- an increase in the number of people with illnesses that weaken their immune systems
Although some people have a higher risk of infection, anyone can get sepsis. People who are at risk include:
- young children and seniors
- people with weaker immune systems, such as those with HIV or those in chemotherapy treatment for cancer
- people being treated in an intensive care unit (ICU)
- people exposed to invasive devices, such as intravenous catheters or breathing tubes
If you have symptoms of sepsis, your doctor will order tests to make a diagnosis and determine the severity of your infection.
One of the first tests is a blood test. Your blood is checked for complications like:
- clotting problems
- abnormal liver or kidney function
- decreased amount of oxygen
- an imbalance in minerals called electrolytes that affect the amount of water in your body as well as the acidity of your blood
Depending on your symptoms and the results of your blood test, your doctor may order other tests, including:
- a urine test (to check for bacteria in your urine)
- a wound secretion test (to check an open wound for an infection)
- a mucus secretion test (to identify germs responsible for an infection)
If your doctor can’t determine the source of an infection using the above tests, your doctor may order an internal view of your body using one of the following:
- X-rays to view the lungs
- computed tomography (CT) scans to view possible infections in the appendix, pancreas, or bowel area
- ultrasounds to view infections in the gallbladder or ovaries
- magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which can identify soft tissue infections
Sepsis can quickly progress to septic shock and death if it is left untreated. Doctors use a number of medications to treat sepsis, including:
- antibiotics via IV to fight infection
- vasoactive medications to increase blood pressure
- insulin to stabilize blood sugar
- corticosteroids to reduce inflammation
Severe sepsis may also require large amounts of IV fluids and a respirator for breathing. Dialysis might be necessary if the kidneys are affected. Kidneys help filter harmful wastes, salt, and excess water from the blood. In dialysis, a machine performs these functions.
In some cases, surgery may be needed to remove the source of an infection. This includes draining a pus-filled abscess or removing infected tissue.
It’s important to remember that sepsis is a medical emergency. Every minute and hour counts, especially since the infection can spread quickly. There’s no one symptom of sepsis, but rather it has a combination of symptoms. Get immediate medical attention if you suspect that you have sepsis, especially if you have a known infection.