Learn what sepsis is, how you get it and what you can do to avoid it.
When it comes to health concerns you may think or worry about, sepsis probably doesn’t make the cut. It’s not a top-of-mind medical condition, but it is something you should know about so you can take steps to recognize and prevent it.
Sepsis is an extreme response in your body triggered by an infection you already have. It is not actually an infection itself but rather your immune system’s response to another infection. Without immediate and targeted treatment, sepsis can lead to serious complications like organ failure, tissue damage or even death.
Each year, at least 1.7 million adults in the U.S. develop sepsis and 270,000 die from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Globally, sepsis kills around 11 million people a year, making it one of the leading causes of death around the world.
Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about sepsis:
Which infections are most likely to cause sepsis?
Just about any infection in your body can cause a septic response. Bacterial infections are the most common cause of sepsis, but sepsis can also be caused by fungal or parasitic infections. They can also be caused by viral infections like COVID-19 or influenza. The most common types of infections that can lead to sepsis are:
- Infections of the abdomen, including the appendix, abdominal cavity, gallbladder or liver
- Infections of the central nervous system, including the brain or spinal cord
- Infections of the lung, such as pneumonia
- Infections of the skin, such as cellulitis, or through the openings made by intravenous (IV) catheters
- Infections of the kidney or bladder, especially if the patient has a urinary catheter
How do I know if I’m at risk for sepsis?
Any infection can cause sepsis and everyone has some risk for developing it, but certain groups are at increased risk. These include:
- People older than 65 or younger than 1
- Pregnant women
- People with pre-existing medical conditions like cancer, kidney disease, diabetes or lung disease
- People with compromised immune systems
- People with severe injuries (large burn areas or large wounds)
- Patients with catheters (IVs, urinary catheters)
What are the signs and symptoms of sepsis?
A person with sepsis might have one or all of the following symptoms:
- Increased heart rate or low blood pressure
- Extreme pain or discomfort
- Disorientation or confusion
- A high fever, or feeling very cold/shivering
- Shortness of breath
- Clammy/sweaty skin
What do I do if I think I have sepsis?
If you suspect that you or a loved one has sepsis, it’s important to take action immediately. If you’re in the hospital, get the attention of the nurse or doctor right away. If you’re at home and you’re having a medical emergency, call 9-1-1.
How is sepsis treated? Can it be cured?
If caught early, sepsis can often be successfully treated with antibiotics. Your doctor will also want to make sure there is proper blood flow to your organs. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to remove any tissue that was damaged by sepsis.
Can I protect myself from getting sepsis?
The best way to ward off sepsis is to practice good medical hygiene. If you have open cuts, keep them clean and covered until they’re healed. Always wash your hands thoroughly before changing the dressings on your wounds. It’s also important to keep up with vaccinations that protect against common viral infections like flu, pneumonia and COVID-19.
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Date Last Reviewed: July 19, 2021
Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor
Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD