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:
- Confusion or delirium
- Fever or low body temperature (hypothermia)
- Lightheadedness due to low blood pressure
- Rapid heartbeat
- Skin rash or mottled skin
- Warm skin
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:
- Blood differential
- Blood gases
- Kidney function tests
- Platelet count and fibrin degradation products, to check for bleeding risk
- White blood cell count
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:
- Oxygen to help with breathing
- Fluids given through a vein
- Medicines that increase blood pressure
- Dialysis if there is kidney failure
- A breathing machine (mechanical ventilation) if there is lung failure
Sepsis is often life threatening, especially in people with a weak immune system or a long-term (chronic) illness.
Damage caused by a decrease 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.
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, Updated Edition. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 75.
Shapiro NI, Jones AE. Sepsis syndromes. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 130.
Singer M, Deutschman CS, Seymour CW, et al. The third international consensus definitions for sepsis and septic shock (sepsis-3). JAMA. 2016;315(8):801-810. PMID 26903338 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26903338.