You can experience hyperglycemia if you have sepsis. These high blood sugars can cause multiple symptoms and have more serious effects on your health if not treated.

An infection or injury to your system can sometimes lead to sepsis, which can be life threatening if it leads to shock or organ failure. Sepsis can also cause your blood sugar levels to fluctuate, going high as well as low even if you don’t have diabetes.

Sepsis can be associated with hyperglycemia (high blood sugar). This condition can hinder your body’s healing response to sepsis, causing poorer health outcomes. Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) can also lead to a much higher mortality risk for people with sepsis.

This article will explain more about how sepsis is related to hyperglycemia and what effects it can have on your overall health and response to an injury or surgery.

Sepsis is one of the leading causes of death worldwide, especially for people who stay in the intensive care unit.

Sepsis is your body’s extreme reaction to a threat. Your body attacks itself and causes major inflammation.

Causes of sepsis

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that the most common causes of sepsis are bacterial infections, followed by viral or fungal infections, influenza, and COVID-19.

Those most at risk of developing sepsis are people who:

  • are younger than 1
  • are older than 65
  • live with chronic conditions like diabetes, cancer, or kidney disease
  • have had sepsis before
  • have weakened immune systems
  • have had recent hospitalizations
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Sepsis can change your blood sugar levels because sepsis interferes with your hormone levels. It can cause your blood sugar to go too high.

Hyperglycemia can be a normal part of your body’s response to acute stress. Any accident or condition that deeply stresses your body, including sepsis, can cause non-diabetes-related hyperglycemia.

When high blood sugar is related to an accident, injury, or condition, it’s called stress-induced hyperglycemia (SIH), which is a blood sugar level above 180 mg/dL in people who don’t have diabetes.

Researchers can’t point to just one reason sepsis causes hyperglycemia. This 2019 research review concluded that sepsis-related hyperglycemia was caused, at least in part, by increased production of glucose.

Your body may make more glucose because it’s trying to deliver extra energy to your organs and tissues after an injury, shock, or acute stress. This 2016 study showed those things can also affect your circulation, causing less blood to reach your cells. More glucose means a higher concentration in the blood reaching your cells.

A 2021 research review noted that at the same time, your body may produce less insulin, which allows you to absorb glucose.

Blood sugar management is vital for a good health outcome in sepsis or other conditions.

Treatment for sepsis-related hyperglycemia can also lead to your blood sugars dipping too low, known as hypoglycemia. This is because healthcare professionals often use insulin to manage sepsis-related high blood sugar. That can lead to hypoglycemia because your body absorbs the glucose too efficiently.

There isn’t agreement on what blood sugar level requires intensive insulin therapy, according to a 2023 literature review. The review authors suggested intensive therapy when blood sugar levels reach 10 mmol/l or 180 mg/dl. While that may cause a risk of hypoglycemia, the possible benefit outweighs the risk, they concluded.

The authors stated that timely blood sugar monitoring could also lower your risk of low blood sugar.

Symptoms of hyperglycemia

There are a few signs to watch out for if you think you have high blood sugar. They include:

  • constant thirst
  • dry mouth
  • blurry vision
  • needing to urinate often
  • fatigue
  • trouble concentrating
  • dry skin

You can read more about hyperglycemia here.

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Sepsis also sometimes leads to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) on its own, without insulin being administered.

When people develop spontaneous hypoglycemia in the early stages of sepsis, it may indicate how severe the sepsis is.

In a 2022 study of 265 people who went to the hospital with sepsis, about 10% had hypoglycemia. People with hypoglycemia had a much higher mortality risk than those with normal blood sugar levels. That’s because it’s an early indicator of how severely ill a person is.

Hypoglycemia in critically ill people can also lead to:

  • serious adverse effects
  • oxidative stress
  • increased mortality

Your healthcare team can help prevent or treat hypoglycemia by carefully monitoring your blood sugar levels and responding to changes.

Injuries, surgeries, or infections can cause you to develop sepsis. Sepsis is when your body’s immune reaction goes into overdrive, setting off a chain reaction that can lead to shock or organ failure. Sepsis can cause hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar, which is your body’s way of protecting your cells when you are critically ill.

Sepsis can also cause hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, especially if a healthcare professional gives you insulin for high blood sugar. Careful blood sugar management is critical to helping you recover from sepsis and any related conditions.