Septicemia is a serious bloodstream infection.

It occurs when a bacterial infection enters the bloodstream from elsewhere in the body, such as the:

  • skin
  • lungs
  • kidneys
  • bladder

This is dangerous because the bacteria and their toxins can be carried through the bloodstream to your entire body.

Septicemia can quickly become life threatening, and it must be treated in a hospital. If left untreated, septicemia can progress to sepsis.

Septicemia and sepsis aren’t the same, although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Sepsis is a serious complication of septicemia.

Sepsis causes inflammation throughout the body. This inflammation can cause blood clots and block oxygen from reaching vital organs, resulting in organ failure.

When the inflammation occurs with extremely low blood pressure, it’s called septic shock. Septic shock is fatal in many cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that over 1.7 million adults in the United States develop sepsis each year. Almost 270,000 (or 15.9 percent) of them may die from the condition.

Septicemia is caused by an infection in another part of your body.

Many types of bacteria can lead to septicemia, and the exact source of the infection often can’t be determined. The most common infections that lead to septicemia are:

Bacteria from these infections enter the bloodstream and multiply rapidly, causing immediate symptoms.

People who are already in the hospital for something else, such as a surgery, are at a higher risk of developing septicemia. Secondary infections can occur while in the hospital. These infections are often more dangerous because the bacteria may already be resistant to antibiotics.

Others at a higher risk of developing septicemia include:

The symptoms of septicemia usually start quickly. Even in the first stages, a person can look very sick.

Symptoms may follow an injury, surgery, or another localized infection, such as pneumonia. The most common initial symptoms are:

More severe symptoms will begin to emerge as septicemia progresses without proper treatment. These include the following:

It’s crucial to get to the hospital right away if you are or someone else is showing signs of septicemia. You shouldn’t wait or try to treat the problem at home.

Septicemia has a number of serious complications. These complications may be fatal if left untreated or if treatment is delayed for too long.

Sepsis

Sepsis occurs when your body has a strong immune response to the infection. This leads to widespread inflammation throughout the body. It’s called severe sepsis if it leads to organ failure, such as kidney or heart failure.

People with chronic conditions are at a higher risk of sepsis. That’s because they have a weakened immune system and can’t fight off the infection on their own.

Septic shock

One complication of septicemia is a serious drop in blood pressure, which is 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 (ICU). You’ll need medications to increase your blood pressure. You may also need to be put on a ventilator.

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)

A third complication of septicemia is acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). This is a life threatening condition that prevents oxygen in your lungs from reaching your blood.

It often results in some level of permanent lung damage. It can also damage your brain, leading to memory problems.

Diagnosing septicemia and sepsis are some of the biggest challenges facing doctors. It can be difficult to find the exact cause of the infection. Diagnosis will usually involve a wide range of tests.

Physical exam

A doctor will evaluate your symptoms and ask about your medical history. They’ll perform a physical examination to look for:

  • low blood pressure
  • low body temperature, which typically only occurs in older adults with the condition
  • high body temperature

The doctor may also look for signs of conditions that more commonly occur along with septicemia, including:

Laboratory tests

The doctor may want to perform tests on multiple types of fluids to help confirm a bacterial infection. These fluids may include:

  • urine
  • wound secretions (and skin sores)
  • respiratory secretions
  • blood

The doctor may check your cell and platelet counts and also order tests to analyze your blood clotting.

If septicemia is causing you to have breathing issues, the doctor may also look at the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in your blood.

Imaging tests

If signs of infection aren’t obvious, your doctor may order imaging tests to look more closely at specific organs and tissue. These include:

Septicemia that has started to affect your organs or tissue function is a medical emergency. It must be treated at a hospital.

Your treatment will depend on several factors, including:

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

Antibiotics are used to treat the bacterial infection that’s causing septicemia.

There isn’t typically enough time to figure out the type of bacteria. Initial treatment will usually use “broad-spectrum” antibiotics. These are designed to work against a wide range of bacteria at once. A more focused antibiotic may be used if the specific bacteria is identified.

You may get fluids and other medications intravenously to maintain your blood pressure or to prevent blood clots from forming. You may also get oxygen through a mask or ventilator if you experience breathing issues as a result of septicemia.

Bacterial infections are the underlying cause of septicemia.

See a doctor right away if you think you have a bacterial infection. If your infection can be effectively treated with antibiotics in the early stages, you may be able to prevent bacteria from entering your bloodstream.

Parents and caregivers can help protect children from septicemia by ensuring children stay up to date with their vaccinations.

If you already have a compromised immune system, the following precautions can help prevent septicemia:

When diagnosed early, septicemia can be treated effectively with antibiotics. Research efforts are focused on finding out better ways to diagnose the condition earlier.

Even with treatment, it’s possible to have permanent organ damage. This is especially true for people with preexisting conditions that affect their immune systems.

There have been many medical developments in septicemia diagnosis, treatment, monitoring, and training. This has helped reduce mortality rates.

According to a 2020 study of sepsis rates worldwide, there were an estimated 60.2 million sepsis cases in 1990 and 48.9 million in 2017, which reflects an 18.8 percent decrease. During this same time period, deaths from sepsis dropped from an estimated 15.7 million to 11 million. This represents a 29.7 percent decrease in the mortality rate.

That said, sepsis still caused 19.7 percent of deaths in 2017. The number of cases has gone down over time but is still higher than previously estimated.

Sepsis is a common cause of death for many people with chronic conditions, which helps explain the high percentage of deaths from sepsis. For instance, chemotherapy will make it difficult for people with cancer to manage any infections. People with conditions such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) are at an increased risk of developing pneumonia and other infections, which may result in sepsis.

If you develop symptoms of septicemia or sepsis after surgery or an infection, seek medical care right away.