If your body has an extreme reaction to an infection, it could result in sepsis, a life-threatening condition. If left untreated, your body’s efforts to control the infection can cause damage to your vital organs, like the brain, heart, and kidneys. Around 1.7 million cases happen annually in the United States. Of these, 270,000 cases go on to have complications and die. Read on to learn how to recognize some of the signs of sepsis.
What Is Sepsis?
Your immune system regularly works to keep you healthy. When you have an infection, your immune system produces chemicals to help defend your body against bacteria, viruses, and other germs. The chemicals produce inflammation–the redness, swelling, heat, and pain you see and feel in the infected area. Sometimes, your immune system makes so many chemicals so quickly that its reaction to an infection can go overboard. This leads to widespread inflammation.
Sepsis is the term for the immune system’s extreme response. Occasionally, you may hear the term blood poisoning. Blood poisoning is another name for septicemia, referring to when bacteria enter the bloodstream. Instead, sepsis is the immune system’s response to an infection. Many of the ailments that cause sepsis are bacterial. However, viral and fungal infections can trigger the disorder as well.
The symptoms of sepsis can be very serious and include difficulty breathing, extreme blood pressure and heart rate changes, and high fever. Without treatment, the swift effects of sepsis can be life-threatening. Septic shock, a severe form of sepsis where your blood pressure decreases to dangerously low levels, can be fatal if not treated immediately.
What Causes Sepsis?
When you have an infection, your immune system attempts to kill the organisms causing it and keep it from spreading. For example, a wound that becomes infected is considered a localized infection. To fight the infection, your body increases blood flow to the infected area to bring more germ-killing white blood cells there.
Sometimes, a severe infection or a weak immune system can result in germs escaping the localized area. If the infection spreads, you can experience widespread inflammation, possibly damaging tissue and interrupting blood flow. Your immune system can react to these changes by increasing its response even more, leading to more damage.
For a reason not fully understood by experts, in some cases of infection, the immune system stops fighting the germs and starts fighting against its own responses. When your immune system turns on itself, it is the beginning of sepsis.
Infections That Cause Sepsis
Sepsis can result from an infection in any of your body parts, though some sites tend to lead to sepsis more than others. These include the abdomen, lungs, pelvis, and urinary tract.
The types of infections below may have a higher risk of sepsis:
- Abdominal infections
- Kidney infections
- Blood poisoning
People with weakened immune systems may be particularly at risk of a sepsis infection. This can include infants and older adults. In addition, individuals with impaired immune systems, such as those going through chemotherapy or living with HIV, can have a higher likelihood of getting sepsis. Finally, individuals in the intensive care unit (ICU) or with invasive devices like feeding tubes or catheters have an increased risk of developing sepsis.
In some cases, doctors cannot identify the cause of sepsis and the original site of infection.
Signs of Sepsis
To diagnose sepsis, doctors first look to see if you have an obvious infection in a wound or elsewhere in your body. They also look for 3 major signs:
- Change in mental status
- Systolic blood pressure higher than 100
- Breathing rate of more than 22 breaths per minute
The most common symptoms of sepsis include:
- Fever with or without chills
- Elevated heart rate
- Low blood pressure
- Extreme discomfort or pain
- Difficulty breathing/rapid breathing
- Sweating or clamminess
- Confusion or disorientation
Those with sepsis may also have the following:
- Decreased urine output
- Sensitivity to light
- Vomiting or nausea
- Lethargy (sleepiness, difficulty finding the energy to move, unresponsiveness)
A handful of individuals with sepsis may develop a spotty or hemorrhagic rash. This appears as a cluster of small spots of blood that look like pinpricks on the skin. If left untreated, they will progress and blend together, looking like bruises and eventually large areas of discolored skin.
Symptoms Like Other Conditions
Symptoms can look like those you would experience with other health conditions such as influenza or COVID-19, making it hard to tell what you are experiencing. The signs of sepsis often come on very rapidly, and a person’s condition quickly deteriorates.
The longer sepsis is left untreated, the greater the risk of septic shock and the more difficult it becomes to treat. Doctors say early recognition of sepsis is essential for detecting and treating it. You should seek immediate medical care if you have any signs, especially if you have had a recent injury or infection.
There is no single diagnostic test for sepsis, which can be challenging for your doctors to diagnose. Generally, doctors will begin with a physical examination and take your vital signs, like blood pressure and heart rate. Next, they’ll use blood tests to look for signs of infection and check your blood for clotting, platelet counts, oxygen levels, and chemical imbalances.
If your results are concerning, they may want to test your urine, mucus, or wound for signs of infection. Imaging tests like a CT scan or x-ray may also be used.
Because the symptoms of sepsis look like those of other medical conditions and illnesses, it can be difficult for doctors to diagnose sepsis early. However, if you meet the criteria for sepsis, your doctor will likely want to begin immediate treatment.
Treatment can include:
- Treating the source of the infection
- Improving blood flow using intravenous fluids
- Increasing blood pressure with medications
Kidney dialysis, a breathing tube, or surgery to remove damaged tissue are all possible treatments for the most severe cases.
Individuals can make a full recovery from sepsis. However, some people may have post-sepsis syndrome (PSS), which can have long-lasting physical and psychological effects.
Some physical symptoms of PSS are:
- Hair loss
- Changes in vision
- Chest pains
- Feeling more tired than usual
- Excessive sweating
- Having a poor apetite
Some psychological symptoms of PSS are:
- Not being able to concentrate
- Mood swings
There isn’t a guaranteed way to prevent sepsis, but decreasing your chances of getting an infection can help. Catching sepsis early by awareness of the symptoms is essential for diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.
- “What is sepsis” via Sepsis Alliance
- “What is sepsis” via CDC
- “Sepsis” via MedlinePlus
- “Sepsis” via NHS Inform
- “Sepsis: Symptoms, diagnosis & treatment” via Yale Medicine
- “Septicemia” via Johns Hopkins Medicine
- “The clinical challenge of sepsis identification and monitoring” via PLOS Medicine
- “Sepsis” via National Institute of General Medicine Sciences
- “Challenges with diagnosing and managing sepsis in older adults” via Expert Review of Anti-infective Therapy https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4804629/
- “Post sepsis syndrome” via The UK Sepsis Trust