Understanding Sepsis

Sepsis is a life threatening dysfunction of organs in response to an overwhelming infection. It is most often caused by bacteria. It ranges in severity from sepsis to severe sepsis to septic shock. All forms of sepsis are a medical emergency. It needs to be treated right away.

What is sepsis?

Sepsis is when the body reacts to an infection with a severe inflammatory response. It can be caused by bacteria, fungus, or a virus. Sepsis can cause many kinds of problems throughout the body. It can lead to severe low blood pressure (shock) and organ failure. This can lead to death if not treated.

Sepsis is most common in:

  • Adults 65 years and older

  • Patients in intensive care units (ICUs) or with devices such as central venous lines or urinary catheters

  • People with an infection such as bacteremia (blood infection), pneumonia, meningitis, or a urinary tract infection

  • People who have an illness such as some cancers, diabetes, or long-term kidney or liver disease

  • People with immune system diseases like HIV or AIDS, or those taking medicines that affect the immune system

  • People being treated with chemotherapy medicines, steroid medicines, or radiation

  • People with severe injuries, including burns

Signs and symptoms of sepsis

Signs and symptoms of sepsis can include:

  • Chills and shaking

  • High fever

  • Low blood pressure

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Rapid breathing

  • Shortness of breath

  • Severe nausea or uncontrolled vomiting

  • Confusion and possibly coma

  • Dizziness

  • Decreased urination

  • Severe pain, including in the back or joints 

Diagnosing sepsis

If your healthcare provider thinks you may have sepsis, you will be given tests. You may have blood and urine tests, as well as cultures. These are done to look for bacteria, viruses, or fungus. Other tests may check for problems with your organs. You may also have X-rays or other imaging tests. These may be done to look at your organs to locate the source of infection.

Treating sepsis

If you have sepsis, your healthcare provider will give you antibiotics through a thin, flexible tube put into a vein in your arm (IV). You will also be given a large amount of fluids through the IV. You may also be given nutrition or other medicines through your IV. Your healthcare provider will talk with you about other treatments you may need. These may include using an oxygen mask or a ventilator to help with breathing. This may also include medicine that raises your blood pressure. Treatment may last at least 7 to 10 days. Sepsis must be treated in the hospital, often in the intensive care unit (ICU). Even with aggressive treatment, sepsis can be fatal.