What is sepsis?
Sepsis is your body's overactive and extreme response to an infection. Sepsis is a life-threatening medical emergency. Without quick treatment, it can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and even death.
What causes sepsis?
Sepsis happens when an infection you already have triggers a chain reaction throughout your body. Bacterial infections are the most common cause, but other types of infections can also cause it.
The infections are often in the lungs, stomach, kidneys, or bladder. It's possible for sepsis to begin with a small cut that gets infected or with an infection that develops after surgery. Sometimes, sepsis can occur in people who didn't even know that they had an infection.
Who is at risk for sepsis?
Anyone with an infection could get sepsis. But certain people are at higher risk:
- Adults 65 or older
- People with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, lung disease, cancer, and kidney disease
- People with weakened immune systems
- Pregnant women
- Children younger than one
What are the symptoms of sepsis?
Sepsis can cause one or more of these symptoms:
- Rapid breathing and heart rate
- Shortness of breath
- Confusion or disorientation
- Extreme pain or discomfort
- Fever, shivering, or feeling very cold
- Clammy or sweaty skin
It's important to get medical care right away if you think you might have sepsis or if your infection is not getting better or is getting worse.
What other problems can sepsis cause?
Severe cases of sepsis can lead to septic shock, where your blood pressure drops to a dangerous level and multiple organs can fail.
How is sepsis diagnosed?
To make a diagnosis, your health care provider
- Will ask about your medical history and symptoms
- Will do a physical exam, including checking vital signs (your temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing)
- Will likely do lab tests that check for signs of infection or organ damage
- May need to do imaging tests such as an x-ray or a CT scan to find the location of the infection
Many of the signs and symptoms of sepsis can also be caused by other medical conditions. This may make sepsis hard to diagnose in its early stages.
What are the treatments for sepsis?
It is very important to get treatment right away. Treatment usually includes
- Maintaining blood flow to organs. This may involve getting oxygen and intravenous (IV) fluids.
- Treating the source of the infection
- If needed, medicines to increase blood pressure
In serious cases, you might need kidney dialysis or a breathing tube. Some people need surgery to remove tissue damaged by the infection.
Can sepsis be prevented?
To prevent sepsis, you should try to prevent getting an infection:
- Take good care of any chronic health conditions that you have
- Get recommended vaccines
- Practice good hygiene, such as handwashing
- Keep cuts clean and covered until healed
NIH: National Institute of General Medical SciencesCenters for Disease Control and Prevention
Prevention and Risk Factors
- CDC Vital Signs: Making Health Care Safer -- Think Sepsis. Time Matters. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Also in Spanish
Statistics and Research
- Life After Traumatic Injury: How the Body Responds (National Institute of General Medical Sciences)
Journal Articles References and abstracts from MEDLINE/PubMed (National Library of Medicine)
Find an Expert
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