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What is sepsis?

Sepsis is your body’s most extreme response to an infection. You may hear it called septicemia. This is the medical name for blood poisoning by germs such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Sepsis can cause shock (called septic shock) and organ failure, which can be fatal in up to half of cases. This depends on the type of germ involved. Sepsis is a medical emergency. You need medical care right away. If not treated, sepsis can quickly cause tissue damage, organ failure, and death.

What causes sepsis?

These infections are most often linked to sepsis:

  • Lung infections (pneumonia)

  • Urinary tract infections

  • Skin infections

  • Infections in the intestines or gut

The three germs that most often develop into sepsis are:

  • Staphylococcus aureus (staph)

  • Escherichia coli (E. coli)

  • Some types of streptococcus

Who is at risk for sepsis?

An infection can happen to anyone. But certain things can make it more likely for you to get sepsis. These include:

  • Having a chronic health condition such as diabetes, cancer, lung disease, weakened immune system, or kidney disease

  • Being age 65 or older

  • Being younger than 1 year old

  • Having community-acquired pneumonia

  • Having been in the hospital in the past. This is especially true if you were in the hospital for an infection.

What are the symptoms of sepsis?

Sepsis develops very quickly. You quickly get very ill. You may:

  • Lose interest in food and surroundings

  • Become feverish, very cold, or have the chills

  • Have problems breathing

  • Have a high heart rate or low blood pressure

  • Become nauseated

  • Vomit

  • Be sensitive to light

  • Complain of a lot of pain or discomfort

  • Feel cold, with cool hands and feet

  • Become lethargic, anxious, confused, or agitated

  • Develop a rash that can look like bruises

You may also fall into a coma. Sepsis can also be fatal.

The symptoms of sepsis may look like other health conditions. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is sepsis diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider looks for physical symptoms such as low blood pressure, fever, higher heart rate, and higher breathing rate. You will need lab tests to check for signs of infection and organ damage. Some symptoms of sepsis can often be seen in other health conditions. These include fever and trouble breathing. This makes sepsis hard to diagnose when it first starts.

How is sepsis treated?

Treatment will depend on your symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is and where in the body the sepsis may be coming from.

Sepsis is a life-threatening emergency that needs to be treated right away. You will need to be in a hospital. Treatment will start as soon as possible.

Treatment includes:

  • Antibiotics

  • Managing blood flow to organs

  • Stopping the source of the infection

Many people need oxygen and IV (intravenous) fluids to help get blood flow and oxygen to the organs. You may need to use a breathing machine (ventilator). You may also need kidney dialysis. Sometimes you may need surgery to remove tissue damaged by the infection.

How can I prevent sepsis?

Preventing infection is the way to prevent sepsis. One of the best ways to prevent infection is to wash your hands often. Wash your hands with clean, running water for at least 20 seconds. Wash your hands:

  • Before eating

  • After using the toilet

  • Before and after caring for a sick person

  • Before, during, and after preparing food

  • Before and after cleaning a wound or cut

  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing

  • After touching an animal or handling pet food or pet treats

  • After changing diapers or cleaning up after a child who has used the toilet

  • After touching garbage

Keeping your immune system strong can also help prevent sepsis. To do this:

  • Keep cuts clean and covered until healed.

  • Manage chronic health conditions such as diabetes.

  • Maintain a healthy weight.

  • Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet.

  • Get regular exercise.

  • Get recommended vaccines on schedule.

  • When an infected area is not getting better or is getting worse, get medical care.

Key points about sepsis

  • Sepsis is a medical emergency and needs to be treated right away. It is caused by an infection in the blood that harms your body and organs. It can cause death if not treated.

  • It is caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. Certain infections such as pneumonia and urinary tract infections can lead to sepsis.

  • People who have chronic conditions are more likely to develop sepsis.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions, especially after office hours and on weekends and holidays.

Online Medical Reviewer: Barry Zingman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Turley Jr PA-C
Date Last Reviewed: 8/1/2023
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.