Sepsis is an illness in which the body has a severe, inflammatory response to bacteria or other germs.
The symptoms of sepsis are not caused by the germs themselves. Instead, chemicals the body releases cause the response.
A bacterial infection anywhere in the body may set off the response that leads to sepsis. Common places where an infection might start include the:
- Bones (common in children)
- Bowel (usually seen with peritonitis)
- Kidneys (upper urinary tract infection, pyelonephritis or urosepsis)
- Lining of the brain (meningitis)
- Liver or gallbladder
- Lungs (bacterial pneumonia)
- Skin (cellulitis)
Sepsis commonly affects infants or older adults.
In sepsis, blood pressure drops, resulting in shock. Major organs and body systems, including the kidneys, liver, lungs, and central nervous system may stop working properly because of poor blood flow.
A change in mental status and very fast breathing may be the earliest signs of sepsis.
In general, symptoms of sepsis can include:
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will examine the person and ask about the person's medical history.
The infection is often confirmed by a blood test. But a blood test may not reveal infection in people who have been receiving antibiotics. Some infections that can cause sepsis cannot be diagnosed by a blood test.
Other tests that may be done include:
A person with sepsis will be admitted to a hospital, usually in the intensive care unit (ICU). Antibiotics are usually given through a vein (intravenously).
Other medical treatments include:
Sepsis is often life threatening, especially in people with a weak immune system or a long-term (chronic) illness.
Damage caused by a drop in blood flow to vital organs such as the brain, heart, and kidneys may take time to improve. There may be long-term problems with these organs.
The risk of sepsis can be reduced by getting all recommended vaccines.
In the hospital, careful hand washing can help prevent hospital-acquired infections that lead to sepsis. Prompt removal of urinary catheters and IV lines when they are no longer needed can also help prevent infections that lead to sepsis.
Septicemia; Sepsis syndrome; Systemic inflammatory response syndrome; SIRS; Septic shock
Munford RS, Suffredini AF. Sepsis, severe sepsis, and septic shock. In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 75.
Shapiro NI, Zimmer GD, Barkin AZ. Sepsis syndromes. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 138.
Singer M, Deutschman CS, Seymour CW, et al. The third international consensus definitions for sepsis and septic shock (sepsis-3). JAMA. 2016;315:801-810. PMID 26903338 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26903338.
Review Date 7/31/2016
Updated by: Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.