Written by Krista O'Connell | Published on June 29, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Septicemia?

Septicemia is also known as bacteremia or blood poisoning. Septicemia occurs when a bacterial infection enters the bloodstream. Untreated septicemia can quickly progress to sepsis, which is a serious complication of an infection characterized by inflammation throughout the body. This inflammation can cause blood clots and block oxygen from reaching vital organs, resulting in organ failure and death in some cases.

What Causes Septicemia?

The root cause of septicemia is a bacterial infection (typically severe) in another part of the body. Urinary tract infections, lung infections, and infections in the abdominal area are all potential causes of septicemia. Bacteria from these infections enter the bloodstream and multiply, causing immediate symptoms.

What Are the Symptoms of Septicemia?

The symptoms of septicemia can quickly progress into a more serious condition if the blood infection is left untreated. Even in the first stages of the illness, somebody who has septicemia will look very sick.

The most common initial symptoms are:

  • chills
  • elevated body temperature
  • very fast respiration and/or heart rate

Other symptoms that commonly emerge as the septicemia progresses include:

  • confusion or inability to think clearly
  • red dots that appear on the skin
  • a reduction in urine volume
  • inadequate blood flow (shock)

If you or someone else is showing signs of septicemia, it is crucial to get to the hospital right away. Never take a “wait and see” approach or try to treat the problem at home.

While septicemia is rare, it is also a very serious condition that can quickly become life threatening if there is any significant delay in treatment. It is often fatal. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, the mortality rate is higher than 50 percent in some cases (UMMC, 2011).

Complications of Septicemia

Septicemia has a number of serious complications. If left untreated, it can be fatal.

Septic Shock

One complication of septicemia is a serious drop in blood pressure, called septic shock. Toxins released by the bacteria in the bloodstream can cause extremely low blood flow, which may result in organ or tissue damage. Septic shock is a medical emergency. People with septic shock are usually cared for in a hospital’s intensive care unit. Someone who is experiencing septic shock may need to be put on a ventilator (breathing machine). Septicemia that leads to septic shock has a death rate as high as 50 percent (Johns Hopkins).


A second complication of septicemia is acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a life-threatening condition that prevents enough oxygen from reaching the lungs and blood. According to the National Institutes of Health, ARDS is fatal in about one-third of cases. It often results in some level of permanent lung damage. It can also damage the brain. This can very easily lead to problems with memory (NIH, 2012).

How Is Septicemia Diagnosed?

To diagnose septicemia, your doctor will evaluate your symptoms and medical history before performing a physical examination to look for low blood pressure or body temperature. The doctor can also look for signs of conditions that often occur in conjunction with septicemia. These conditions include pneumonia, meningitis, and cellulitis.

Your doctor may perform cultures on urine, blood, and skin sore samples to confirm bacterial infection.

Some tests that may be performed include:

  • blood cell and platelet counts
  • tests to analyze blood clotting
  • tests to analyze oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood (if septicemia is causing breathing issues)

Treatment for Septicemia

Septicemia is a medical emergency that must be treated at a hospital. Many people with septicemia are admitted to a hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) for treatment and recovery. Treatment depends on several factors, including:

  • age and overall health
  • the extent of your condition
  • tolerance for certain medications

Antibiotics will be used to treat the bacterial infection that is causing septicemia.

Fluids and other medications may be administered intravenously to maintain blood pressure or to prevent blood clots from forming. Oxygen may also be given through a mask or ventilator if you experience breathing issues as a result of septicemia.


Is There Any Way to Prevent Septicemia?

Bacterial infections are the underlying cause of septicemia. Therefore, one of the best ways to prevent this condition is to see a doctor right away if you suspect you have an infection. If your infection can be effectively treated with antibiotics in the early stages, you may be able to prevent the bacteria from entering the bloodstream. Parents can help protect children from septicemia by ensuring they stay up to date with vaccinations.

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