What is blood poisoning?
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. Although not a medical term, “blood poisoning” is used to describe bacteremia, 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.
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 bacteremia or septicemia. The terms “septicemia” and “sepsis” are often used interchangeably, though 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. But any type of infection — whether bacterial, fungal, or viral — can cause sepsis. And these infectious agents don’t necessarily need to be in a person’s bloodstream to bring about sepsis.
Such infections most commonly occur in the lungs, abdomen, and urinary tract. Sepsis happens more often in people who are hospitalized, where the risk of infection is already higher.
Because blood poisoning occurs when bacteria enter your bloodstream in conjunction with another infection, you won’t develop sepsis without having an infection first.
Some common causes of infections that can cause sepsis include:
- abdominal infection
- an infected insect bite
- central line infection, such as from a dialysis catheter or chemotherapy catheter
- dental extractions or infected teeth
- exposure of a covered wound to bacteria during surgical recovery, or not changing a surgical bandage frequently enough
- exposure of any open wound to the environment
- infection by drug-resistant bacteria
- kidney or urinary tract infection
- skin infection
Some people are more susceptible than others to sepsis. Those who are more at risk include:
- people with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV, AIDS, or leukemia
- young children
- older adults
- people who use intravenous drugs such as heroin
- people with poor dental hygiene
- those using a catheter
- people who’ve had recent surgery or dental work
- those working in an environment with great exposure to bacteria or viruses, such as in a hospital or outdoors
The symptoms of blood poisoning include:
- moderate or high fever
- rapid breathing
- increased heart rate or palpitations
- paleness of the skin, especially in the face
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:
- red spots on the skin that may grow larger and look like a big, purple bruise
- little to no urine production
- organ failure
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.
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 inferred with these tests:
- blood culture testing
- blood oxygen levels
- blood count
- clotting factor
- urine tests including urine culture
- chest X-ray
- electrolyte and kidney function tests
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 tests can all help detect infection in your body’s organs:
- CT scan
- MRI scan
If bacteria are present, identifying what type they are will help your doctor determine which antibiotic to prescribe to clear the infection.
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:
- rapid, weak pulse
- rapid, shallow breathing
- dizziness or unconsciousness
- low blood pressure
You may also receive oxygen and fluids intravenously to help maintain a healthy blood pressure and get rid of the infection. Blood clots are another concern in immobilized patients.
Sepsis is usually treated with hydration, often through an intravenous line, as well as antibiotics that target the organism causing the infection. Sometimes medications may need to be used to temporarily support low blood pressure. These medications are called vasopressors. If sepsis is severe enough to cause multi-organ dysfunction, that patient may need to be mechanically ventilated, or they may even need dialysis temporarily if their kidneys have failed.
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 more closely you follow your doctor’s treatment plan, the greater your chance of a full recovery. Early and aggressive treatment in a hospital intensive care unit increases the chances you’ll survive sepsis. Most people can make a full recovery from mild sepsis with no lasting complications. With the right care, you can be feeling better in as little as a week or two.
If you survive severe sepsis, however, you’re at risk of developing serious complications. Some long-term side effects of sepsis include:
- possible blood clots
- organ failure, requiring surgery or lifesaving measures to be administered
- tissue death (gangrene), requiring removal of the affected tissue or possibly amputation
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 if you suspect you have an infection. Avoid places where you’re likely to encounter bacteria, viruses, or fungi if you’re prone to infection.