Sepsis. What It Is, Why It Happens, How You Treat It. Be Prepared.

Jul 11 2018

Sepsis. What It Is, Why It Happens, How You Treat It. Be Prepared.

Sepsis happens when a bacterial infection gets into the blood. This is called septicemia. It can turn into a medical emergency that becomes life threatening with organ failure or severe injury. Over 1 million people are hospitalized in the United States each year. Moreover, sepsis ranks in the top 10 of diseases leading to mortality in America.

Sepsis: Causes

Most people at risk for sepsis are the very young and the old, as well as anyone with these risk factors:

  • A weakened immune system
  • Chronic illness, including diabetes, kidney or liver disease, AIDS, and cancer
  • A severe wound, including severe burns

Vulnerability to sepsis is more widespread today for a number of reasons:

  • More opportunities for infections to become complicated – more people are having invasive procedures and organ transplants, and more are taking immunosuppressive drugs and chemotherapies
  • Rising antibiotic resistance – microbes are becoming immune to drugs that would otherwise control infections



Sepsis: Symptoms

Symptoms can often mimic other illnesses like the flu. It’s important to contact a doctor immediately as sepsis is fast acting. Here are several symptoms you should be aware of:


  • Fever (high temperature), and there may be chills and shivering
  • Fast heart rate
  • Rapid rate of breathing
  • Unusual levels of sweating



Call an ambulance immediately if these symptoms appear:

  • Dizziness or feelings of faintness
  • Confusion or a drop in alertness, or any other unusual change in mental state, including a feeling of doom or a real fear of death
  • Slurred speech
  • Diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting
  • Severe muscle pain and extreme general discomfort
  • Difficulty breathing – shortness of breath
  • Low urine output (not needing to urinate for a whole day, for example)
  • Skin that is cold, clammy, and pale, or discolored or mottled
  • Skin that is cool and pale at the extremities, signaling poor blood supply


Sepsis: Seniors Are At High Risk

Older people have a higher risk of sepsis because of:

  • previous or current existing conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, and others
  • time spent in the hospital, and especially in the intensive care unit (ICU)
  • reduced immunity
  • functional limitations, due, for example, to muscles loss and neurological changes
  • the effects of aging


In older people, the early signs of sepsis may be harder to spot than in younger people, but as symptoms progress, the person’s condition can deteriorate rapidly. Sepsis is most likely to stem from a respiratory tract problem or a urinary infection.


Treatment is available, but severe sepsis is fatal in 50 to 60 percent of cases among seniors. Early treatment is more likely to be effective.



Sepsis: Treatments

The main treatment for sepsis is antibiotics as most cases are caused by a bacterial infection.

Doctors may have to make a “best guess” at the type of infection and, therefore, the type of antibiotics needed, because speed is important.

Antibiotics alone may be sufficient at an early stage of the condition, but treatment needs to be given promptly. For later conditions, hospital treatment may need to be given in an intensive care unit; this can include:

  • intravenous fluids
  • central lines
  • other means of organ support as necessary



Sepsis: Prevention Is The Key

The CDC stresses the importance of prevention. Follow these guidelines:

  • If advised by your doctor, get vaccinated against potential infections, including the flu and pneumonia
  • Keep any scrapes and wounds clean to prevent infection and follow good hygiene practices such as hand-washing
  • Stay alert to possible symptoms such as fever, chills, rapid heart rate and rapid breathing, rash, or confusion
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Barry G

Barry graduated from City University of New York and holds a Ph.D. in Physiological Psychology.

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