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Sepsis: Symptoms, Causes, Risks, and Treatment

Sepsis: Symptoms, Causes, Risks, and Treatment

by Ghania Ahmad · December 21, 2020

Did you know that there are 20 million to 30 million cases of sepsis every year?

The death rate as a result of sepsis is even greater than that of HIV/AIDS, breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.

This guide looks deeply into the meaning, symptoms, causes and risk factors of sepsis. We will also discuss about sepsis complications and treatment.

So, let’s get started!


What is Sepsis?

When our body shows an extreme response to an infection, we call it as sepsis. This is a medical emergency that can be life-threatening.

When an already existing infection triggers a chain reaction throughout the different parts of your body, sepsis occurs in the body.

Sepsis meaning

If left untreated, sepsis can cause severe damage to your tissues and organs. This can also result in death in some cases.

Common Sites of Infection

Any sort of infection can lead to sepsis but, the most common sites of infection include:

Types of infections

Sepsis is not contagious which means it can’t be transferred from one person to another. However, the infections resulting in sepsis can be spread to others according to Sepsis Alliance.

The infections that may result in sepsis include:

  • Bacterial infections
  • Viral infections (like COVID-19 or influenza)


Sepsis Symptoms and Risks

There are three stages of sepsis, named as:

  • Systemic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (SIRS)
  • Severe sepsis
  • Septic shock

All three stages have different set of symptoms and complications associated with them.

Let’s have a look at the symptoms and risks during all three stages!

symptoms of sepsis

What Are the Symptoms of Sepsis?

The signs and symptoms during each stage are as follow:

Stage One: Systemic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (SIRS)

Symptoms of stage one include:

  • High or low body temperature (above 101ºF fever or below 96.8ºF temperature)
  • Increased heart rate (more than 90 beats per minute) or changes in blood flow
  • Elevated breathing rate (more than 20 breaths per minute)
  • Probability of infection or a confirmed infection

At least, two of these symptoms must be present in order to make a formal diagnosis.

Stage Two: Severe Sepsis

Organ failure marks the beginning of severe sepsis. In order to be diagnosed with severe sepsis, one or more of the following symptoms must be present:

  • Discolored skin patches
  • Low platelet count
  • Decreased urination
  • Severe weakness
  • Low body temperature resulting in chills
  • Abnormality in heart functions
  • Breathing problems
  • Unconsciousness
  • Low blood pressure or blood flow
  • Reduction in the level of mental ability

Stage Three: Septic Shock

This is the most severe stage of sepsis. Symptoms may include:

  • Extremely low blood pressure
  • Perfusion abnormalities (like elevated lactate level)

These symptoms are very severe and can lead to death.

The rate of mortality resulting from septic shock ranges from 30% to 50%.

Possible Risks and Complications of Sepsis

Mild cases have a higher rate of recovery. However, the cases at the stage of septic shock have around 50% mortality rate.

If you are at the stage of severe sepsis, there is a greater risk of infection in future.

Furthermore, the complications of severe sepsis or septic shock include the formation of small blood clots throughout the body.

These blood clots increase the chances of tissue death and organ failure which can eventually lead towards death.


Sepsis Causes

Any infection can initiate sepsis. The types of infection that are most likely to cause sepsis include:

  • Infection in the bloodstream
  • Pneumonia
  • Kidney’s infection
  • Abdominal infection
causes of sepsis

According to the statistics, the cases of sepsis keep on increasing every year in US.

What can be the possible reason of increased cases?

  • An increase in the aging population
  • Higher resistance towards antibiotics which is increasing
  • Greater number of people with weak immune systems and related illnesses

Who Is At Risk for Sepsis?

People who are at a greater risk for sepsis include:

  • Older adults
  • Infants and young children
  • Those with weak immunity system like people in chemotherapy treatment or those having HIV
  • People who are being treated in ICU (Intensive Care Unit)
  • The ones having exposure to invasive devices (like breathing tubes or intravenous catheters)

Sepsis in Newborns:

If a baby gets a blood infection during the first month of life, we call it as neonatal sepsis.

Furthermore, the basis on which neonatal sepsis can be classified is the timing of contracting an infection.

The infection can be contracted during the process of birth which is called early onset. It can also be contracted after the process of birth called as late onset.

This classification helps the doctor to decide the treatment plan.

The babies with low birth weight or those who are born prematurely are mostly susceptible to late-onset sepsis.

While symptoms can be nonspecific, some of the most common signs are:

  • Low body temperature
  • Fever
  • Pale skin color
  • Swelling in abdomen
  • Temporary pause in breathing which is also called apnea
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Not breastfeeding well
  • Jitteriness and seizures
  • Jaundice (yellowing of skin and eyes)
  • Feeding problems

Sepsis in older adults

Our immune systems become weak as we age. Therefore, older people are at a greater risk for sepsis.

According to a research, in 2006 more than 70% of sepsis cases comprised of people over 65 years of age.

The infections that are most likely to cause sepsis include respiratory tract infections and urinary tract infections.

Furthermore, infections of skin as a result of pressure sores or tearing of skin are also common.


Sepsis Diagnosis

In order to make a diagnosis for sepsis, your doctor will look deeply into the symptoms.

He will also determine the severity level of your infection.

To begin with, your doctor will ask for a blood test.

diagnosis of sepsis

What Does a Blood Test Tell?

A blood test can tell about various complications like:

  • Problems in clotting
  • Abnormal functioning of kidney or liver
  • Infection
  • Low levels of oxygen
  • Electrolyte imbalance

Other Tests

Based on the result of your blood test and the symptoms you are experiencing, your doctor can ask for other tests.

These tests may include:

  • Mucus secretion test (in order to identify the germs causing infection)
  • Urine test (for the purpose of checking bacteria in urine)
  • Wound secretion test (to assess an open wound causing infection)

If these tests fail to determine the source of infection,  your doctor may plan to examine your body internally.

Any of the following can be used for that purpose:

X-rays are used to examine lungs. CT scans tell us about the possible infections in other parts of the body like pancreas, appendix or bowel area.

Moreover, ultrasounds give an idea about infections in ovaries and gallbladder. MRI scans can identify infections in soft tissues.


Sepsis Treatment

If left untreated, sepsis can quickly shift from one stage to another. This can lead to death as well.

For the purpose of treatment, doctors prescribe several medications.

sepsis treatment


Some of the medications include:

  • Antibiotics through IV (for the purpose of fighting infection)
  • Insulin (to keep the level of blood sugar stable)
  • Certain painkillers (to reduce the pain)
  • Corticosteroids (in order to reduce inflammation)
  • Vasoactive medications (to deal with a low blood pressure)

Severe sepsis or septic shock may also require a respirator for breathing or IV fluids.

In case, the infection affects your kidneys, dialysis would be required. The purpose of dialysis is to filter salts, harmful wastes and excess water from blood.

Our kidneys normally perform these functions but in case of dialysis, a machine replaces the purpose of kidneys.

In very severe cases, it might require to go for surgery in order to remove the source of infection.

Moreover, the surgery includes removing pus-filled abscess or other infected tissues.

How Can You Recover from Sepsis?

The severity and stage of your sepsis determines your recovery from the illness or any other preexisting condition.

Most of the people who survive will recover from sepsis completely. However, some people report having lasting effects.

After surviving the illness, it usually takes around 18 months to go back to your normal self. More than 50% of survivors usually deal with post-sepsis syndrome (PSS).

The long-term effects of sepsis include:

  • Fatigue
  • Severe joint and muscle pains
  • Organs with long-term damage
  • Reduced concentration and attention span
  • Low self-esteem
  • Lower level of cognition
  • Nightmares
  • Insomnia

Severe type of symptoms can lead to death eventually. Therefore, as soon as the symptoms start showing, consult your doctor.

How Can Sepsis be Prevented?

Once infection has been spotted, taking different steps to prevent the spread of infection can save you from sepsis.

Some of the preventive measures include:

  • Keeping a check on your vaccination and staying up to date. Get your vaccinations for pneumonia, flu and other infections as soon as possible.
  • Forming healthy habits and taking care of your hygiene. Proper handwashing, bathing and wound care can save you from getting infections.
  • In case, you develop the signs of infection, get immediate care. When it comes to the treatment of sepsis, every single minute counts. You can save yourself from so many complications if you go for an early treatment.

Prevention can save you big time. So, develop healthy habits to fight all kinds of germs and infections. Keep yourself and your loved ones safe!

Ghania Ahmad

I am a Psychology graduate and I run a small home-based setup for children on spectrum. I love making content. In the past, I've worked as a Marketing Communications Manager at Acme Business services. Prior to this, I have also served IGI Life Vitality as a Senior Executive Consultant.

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