What is Sepsis?

Sepsis is an extremely serious and life-threatening condition. It occurs as a complication from an infection in the body. The immune system is the body’s defense system against invading bacteria, viruses, fungi, and the like. It reacts when the presence of those invaders is detected. When a person suffers from sepsis, it is because the immune system responds too strongly to a bacterial infection in the body.

The immune system releases chemicals to fight off infection, but when it is overzealous, those chemicals can get into the bloodstream and cause an inflammatory response that spreads throughout the body. This can cause numerous severe complications including dangerous blood clots and severe damage to all of the organs in the body, potentially even causing catastrophic organ failure. There are three stages of sepsis. They are sepsis, severe sepsis, and septic shock.

Certain people are at higher risk of developing sepsis than others. The elderly, young children, and people with compromised immune systems are particularly at risk. Victims of severe burns and physical traumas are also more susceptible to sepsis. Drug-resistant bacteria may also trigger a septic reaction in the body.

What are the Symptoms of Sepsis?

There are numerous symptoms of sepsis. A fever of 101°F (38.5 °C) or above may be a sign of sepsis. Alternatively, a body temperature of 96.8°F (36°C)  or below is also a symptom of sepsis. Other possible signs of sepsis are if a person has a heart rate that is above 90 beats per minute or breathes 20 breaths per minute or more.

When a person has severe sepsis, they may suffer from abdominal pain, have difficulty breathing, experience changes to their mental state, have reduced urine output, or have noticeable skin discoloration. Extreme weakness as well as slipping into unconsciousness can also be signs of severe sepsis. Septic shock involves the aforementioned symptoms as well as a very low blood pressure.

Sepsis Causes

Sepsis can be caused by almost any type of infection, whether it is viral, bacterial, or fungal in nature, but there are a few infections that are more prone to cause it than others.

The list of infections that most often cause sepsis includes:

  • Pneumonia
  • Abdominal infections
  • Kidney infections
  • Bacteremia (infection of the bloodstream)

This condition is more common in the very young and old who are already in the hospital for treatment of severe medical conditions than in any other group.

Other risk factors include:

  • A weakened or compromised immune system (from conditions like HIV or cancer treatments like chemotherapy)
  • Chronic illnesses (i.e. diabetes, AIDS, cancer, kidney disease, liver disease)
  • Burns and other serious wounds or injuries
  • Having invasive devices in the body (intravenous catheters or breathing tubes, for example)

While sepsis is rare, there seems to be an increase in the number of cases each year. This is probably because of a combination of aging population (which adds to the number of people at risk), an increase in antibiotic resistant infections, and an increase in the number of people being diagnosed with conditions that weaken their immune systems.

How is Sepsis Treated?

Antibiotics administered through an IV are necessary to treat sepsis as well as the bacterial infection that caused the condition. There are also medications that doctors use to increase blood pressure, regulate blood sugar levels, and reduce pain and inflammation. Hospitalization is necessary to treat sepsis. Sometimes, a person may need a respirator to help them breathe and IV fluids and dialysis to help with systemic dehydration and kidney problems caused by sepsis. Surgery may also be needed to remove the tissue that is infected (like an abscess or growth).

Sepsis Prevention

Since sepsis is a condition that is caused by infections, preventing the spread of infections that can lead to sepsis is one of the best ways to reduce your overall risk of developing it.

You can prevent it using such measures as:

  • Practicing, or continuing to practice, good hygiene – washing your hands with warm water and soap, and bathing regularly
  • Caring for wounds properly, or seeking treatment if you cannot care for it properly yourself
  • Updating your shots (or continuing to stay up-to-date with your shots), including vaccinations for pneumonia and the flu
  • Going in immediately for treatment when you see signs of an infection.
Last Reviewed:
October 10, 2016
Last Updated:
June 16, 2018