Septic means infected with bacteria.

An embolus is anything that moves through blood vessels until it gets stuck in a vessel that’s too small to pass through and stops the blood flow.

Septic emboli are bacteria containing blood clots that have broken free of their source and traveled through the bloodstream until getting lodged in — and blocking — a blood vessel.

Septic emboli represent a two-pronged attack on your body:

  1. They completely block or partially reduce blood flow.
  2. The blockage includes an infectious agent.

Septic emboli can have mild outcomes (minor skin changes) to serious ones (life-threatening infections).

Septic emboli typically originate in a heart valve. An infected heart valve can yield a small blood clot that can travel almost anywhere in the body. If it travels to the brain and blocks a blood vessel, it’s called a stroke. If the clot is infected (septic emboli), it’s classified as a septic stroke.

Along with heart valve infection, common causes of septic emboli include:

The symptoms of septic emboli are similar to nonspecific signs of infection, such as:

Additional symptoms could include:

  • sharp chest or back pain
  • numbness
  • shortness of breath

If you have a high risk for infections, then you’re more likely to experience septic emboli. People at higher risk include:

  • elderly people
  • people with prosthetic heart valves, pacemakers, or central venous catheters
  • people with weakened immune systems
  • people who use injection drugs

Your doctor’s first step might be to take a blood culture. This test checks for the presence of germs in your blood. A positive culture — meaning bacteria is detected in your blood — could indicate septic emboli.

A positive blood culture can identify the type of bacteria in your body. This also tells your doctor which antibiotic to prescribe. But it won’t identify how the bacteria entered or the location of the emboli.

Diagnostic tests to further evaluate septic emboli include:

Treating the infection with antibiotics is typically the primary treatment for septic emboli. Depending on the location of the original source of the infection, treatment could also include:

  • draining an abscess
  • removing or replacing infected prostheses
  • repairing a heart valve damaged by the infection

Keeping your eye out for signs of infection in your body is always a good practice, especially if you’re in a high-risk group. Keep your doctor informed about those signs and other signs of illness, too. This can help you stay ahead of potentially serious conditions.

To head off potential infections, there are a number of specific preventive measures you can take:

  • Maintain good dental health.
  • Talk to your doctor about taking preventive antibiotics before dental procedures.
  • Avoid body piercings and tattoos to prevent risk of infection.
  • Practice good hand-washing habits.
  • Get prompt medical attention for skin infections.