Sepsis is a serious and often life-threatening complication of an infection. It occurs when the body has an overwhelming response to a bacterial infection, releasing infection-fighting chemicals into the bloodstream that trigger inflammation throughout the body. This inflammation can lead to blood clots and leaky blood vessels, which causes poor blood flow, depriving the body and its organs of the oxygen and nutrients needed to function effectively. In severe cases, organs may fail. In the worst cases, a dangerous drop in blood pressure occurs and the heart is weakened, leading to a life-threatening condition called septic shock.
Causes and Risk Factors
Any type of infection can lead to sepsis, but the most common triggers of the condition are infections that include:
- Kidney infections
- Bloodstream infections, or bacteremia
Most people do not develop sepsis from these infections. However, when the bacteria causing the infection or toxins produced by the bacteria spreads into the bloodstream, sepsis is a risk. This is most likely when the original infection involves an abscess, or a collection of pus.
Individuals who are at a higher risk than the average person for developing sepsis include newborns, older adults, pregnant women, those with chronic health conditions like diabetes or cirrhosis, and individuals with weakened immune systems due to conditions or medications that suppress immune function. Other risk factors include treatment with medical devices that can introduce bacteria into the blood – IV or urinary catheters and breathing or drainage tubes, for instance – or having an antibiotic resistant infection.
Common symptoms that may indicate the onset of sepsis include:
- Body temperature above 101 F or below 96.8 F
- Rapid resting heart rate – above 90 beats per minute
- Rapid resting breathing – more than 20 breaths per minute
- A probable or diagnosed infection
As sepsis worsens, the following symptoms may present:
- Mental confusion
- Low urine output
- Labored breathing
- Abnormal heart function
- Abdominal pain
- Low blood platelet count
Septic shock is characterized by the additional symptom of extremely low blood pressure that does not respond appropriately to treatment.
Sepsis cannot always be prevented, but there are things you can do to lower your risk. The most important directive is to seek medical care at any sign of infection and to take any medications your doctor prescribes to treat infections exactly as directed. This is especially important with antibiotics, since skipping doses or failing to finish all of the medication can lead to more virulent, antibiotic resistant infections. If affordability is an issue in accessing these medications, ask your doctor's office about patient assistance programs and other resources for low or no-cost prescription medications.
If you have a wound from surgery or injury, or a serious burn, following wound care instructions carefully and keeping the area clean and dry can reduce your risk of infection, thus preventing infections that could lead to sepsis. Pneumonia vaccinations are an important preventive measure, especially if you have chronic health concerns, as are annual influenza (flu) shots, since flu can lead to pneumonia. If you use medical devices or equipment at home, follow cleaning and sterilization procedures to the letter to avoid bacterial growth and transfer.
Any symptoms that indicate the onset of sepsis warrant immediate emergency medical care, even if symptoms are mild; the condition can progress very quickly, and severe sepsis can be fatal. Sepsis is usually treated in the hospital, where antibiotics, fluids and other medications can be administered via IV and patients can be observed closely for signs of complications such as organ failure, gangrene, heart complications, or septic shock. Supportive care may include oxygen supplementation and medications to stabilize blood pressure.