Sepsis: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Risks &

What is sepsis? A life-threatening illness caused by your body’s response to an infection is referred to as sepsis. Sepsis develops when the chemicals in the immune system release into the bloodstream to fight an infection cause inflammation throughout the entire body instead. What are the symptoms of sepsis? There are three stages of sepsis: […]

Sepsis — African Sepsis Alliance

What is sepsis?

A life-threatening illness caused by your body’s response to an infection is referred to as sepsis. Sepsis develops when the chemicals in the immune system release into the bloodstream to fight an infection cause inflammation throughout the entire body instead.

What are the symptoms of sepsis?

There are three stages of sepsis:

  • Sepsis
  • Severe sepsis
  • Septic shock.

Sepsis can happen while you’re still in the hospital recovering from a procedure. It’s important to seek immediate medical attention if you have any of the below symptoms. The earlier you seek treatment, the greater your chances of survival.


Symptoms of sepsis include:

  • A fever above 101ºF (38ºC) or a temperature below 96.8ºF (36ºC)
  • Heart rate higher than 90 beats per minute
  • Breathing rate higher than 20 breaths per minute
  • Probable or confirmed infection

You must have two of these symptoms before a doctor can diagnose sepsis.

Severe sepsis

Severe sepsis occurs when there’s organ failure. You must have one or more of the following signs to be diagnosed with severe sepsis:

  • Patches of discolored skin
  • Decreased urination
  • Changes in mental ability
  • Low platelet (blood clotting cells) count
  • Problems breathing
  • Abnormal heart functions
  • Chills due to falling in body temperature
  • Unconsciousness
  • Extreme weakness

Septic shock

Symptoms of septic shock include;

  • The symptoms of severe sepsis.
  • Very low blood pressure.
The serious effects of sepsis
Sepsis is a life-threatening illness. The illness ranges from mild to severe. It is easy to get better in mild cases. Having a case of severe sepsis increases your risk of a future infection. Severe sepsis or septic shock can also cause complications. Small blood clots can form throughout your body. These clots block the flow of blood and oxygen to vital organs and other parts of your body. This increases the risk of organ failure and tissue death (gangrene).

Any infection can trigger sepsis, but the following types of infections are more likely to cause sepsis:

  • Pneumonia
  • Abdominal infection
  • Kidney infection
  • Bloodstream infection

According to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the number of sepsis cases in the United States increases every year. Possible reasons for the increase include:

  • An aging population, because sepsis is more common in seniors
  • An increase in antibiotic resistance, which happens when an antibiotic loses its ability to resist or kill bacteria
  • An increase in the number of people with illnesses that weaken their immune systems

Who is at risk for sepsis?

Although some people have a higher risk of infection, anyone can get sepsis. People who are at risk include:

  • Young children and seniors
  • People with weaker immune systems, such as those with HIV or those in chemotherapy treatment for cancer
  • People being treated in an intensive care unit (ICU)
  • People exposed to invasive devices, such as intravenous catheters or breathing tubes

Newborns and sepsis

Sepsis in Children

Neonatal sepsis is when your baby gets a blood infection within the first month of life. Neonatal sepsis is classified based on the timing of the infection, according to whether the infection was contracted during the birth process or after birth. This helps the doctor decide what kind of treatment to administer. Low birth weight and premature babies are more susceptible to late-onset sepsis because their immune systems are immature. Some signs include:

  • Listlessness
  • Improper breastfeeding
  • low body temperature
  • Apnea (temporary stopping of breathing)
  • Fever
  • Pale color
  • Poor skin circulation with cool extremities
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Seizures
  • Jitteriness
  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
  • Problems feeding

Neonatal sepsis is still a leading cause of infant death, but with early diagnosis and treatment, the baby will recover completely and have no other problems. With maternal universal screening and proper neonatal testing, the risk of neonatal sepsis has decreased significantly.

Due to immune weakening with age the possibilities of getting sepsis also increases. Chronic illness, such as diabetes, kidney disease, cancer, high blood pressure, and HIV, are commonly found with those who have sepsis. The most common types of infections to cause sepsis in seniors are respiratory like pneumonia or genitourinary like a urinary tract infection. Other infections can come with infected skin due to pressure sores or skin tearing. While these infections might not be noticed for a while, confusion or disorientation is a common symptom to look for when identifying infection in seniors.

Is sepsis contagious?

The disease is not contagious. The pathogens that caused the original infection that lead to sepsis can be contagious. Sepsis spreads within a person’s body from the original source of infection to other organs through the bloodstream.

How is sepsis diagnosed?

If you have symptoms of sepsis, other tests must be carried out to determine how severe the problem is. One of the first tests is a blood test. Your blood is checked for complications like:

  • Infection
  • Clotting problems
  • Abnormal liver or kidney function
  • Decreased amount of oxygen
  • An imbalance in minerals called electrolytes that affect the amount of water in your body as well as the acidity of your blood

Depending on your symptoms and the results of your blood test, Other tests might be considered. Those tests include;

  • A urine test (to check for bacteria in your urine)
  • A wound secretion test (to check an open wound for an infection)
  • A mucus secretion test (to identify germs responsible for an infection)

If the infection source is not determined by the tests internal view of your body is recommended. This includes;

  • X-rays to view the lungs
  • CT scans to view possible infections in the appendix, pancreas, or bowel area
  • ultrasounds to view infections in the gallbladder or ovaries
  • MRI scans, which can identify soft tissue infections

Sepsis criteria

There are two tools or sets of criteria, that are used to determine the severity of your condition. One is the systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS). SIRS is defined when you meet two or more of the following criteria:

  • Fever of more than 100.4°F (38°C) or less than 96.8°F (36°C)
  • The heart rate of more than 90 beats per minute
  • Respiratory rate of more than 20 breaths per minute or arterial carbon dioxide tension (PaCO2) of less than 32 mm Hg
  • Abnormal white blood cell count

Another tool is the quick sequential organ failure assessment (qSOFA). It uses the results of three criteria:

  • Low blood pressure reading
  • High respiratory rate (greater than 22 breaths per minute)
  • Glasgow coma scale score of less than 15 (This scale is used to determine your level of consciousness.)

A positive qSOFA is determined if two or more of the above measurements are abnormal. Some physicians prefer using qSOFA because unlike the SIRS criteria, qSOFA doesn’t require laboratory tests. The results of either of these assessments will help your doctor determine care.

How is sepsis treated?

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Sepsis can quickly progress to septic shock and death if it’s left untreated. Some Doctors medications used to treat sepsis, include;

  • Antibiotics via IV to fight infection
  • Vasoactive medications to increase blood pressure
  • Insulin to stabilize blood sugar
  • Corticosteroids to reduce inflammation
  • Painkillers

Severe sepsis may also require large amounts of IV fluids and a respirator for breathing. Dialysis might be necessary if the kidneys are affected. Kidneys help filter harmful wastes, salt, and excess water from the blood. In dialysis, a machine performs these functions. In some cases, surgery may be needed to remove the source of infection. This includes draining a pus-filled abscess or removing infected tissue.

Can you recover from sepsis?

Your recovery from sepsis depends on the severity of your condition and any preexisting conditions you might have. Many people who survive will recover completely. However, others will report lasting effects. The UK Sepsis Trust says it can take up to 18 months before survivors start to feel like their normal self. The Sepsis Alliance says that around 50 percent of sepsis survivors deal with post-sepsis syndrome (PSS). The alliance says this condition includes long-term effects such as:

  • Damaged organs
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares
  • Disabling muscle and joint pains
  • Fatigue
  • Poor concentration
  • Lowered cognitive functioning
  • Lowered self-esteem

Severe cases of sepsis can lead to death.

Sepsis prevention

Taking steps to prevent the spread of infection can reduce your risk of developing sepsis. These include:

  • Staying up to date on your vaccinations. Get vaccinated for the flu, pneumonia, and other infections.
  • Practicing good hygiene. This means practicing proper wound care, handwashing, and bathing regularly.
  • Getting immediate care if you develop signs of infection. Every minute counts when it comes to sepsis treatment. The sooner you get treatment, the better the outcome.


Sepsis is a medical emergency. The infection spreads very quickly. Sepsis has no symptoms, but rather it has a combination of symptoms. Seek immediate medical attention when you experience sepsis symptoms.

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