What Causes Sepsis (Blood Infection) in the Elderly?

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Yaneff_sepsis_030316It’s important to understand what causes sepsis (blood infection) in the elderly. Sepsis is also known as a blood infection or blood poisoning, and it’s a serious and potentially life-threatening immune reaction, triggered by the release of immune chemicals into the bloodstream to combat the blood infection.

In the process, widespread inflammation is also triggered, which leads to leaky vessels and blood clotting. As a result, blood flow is impaired, and the body’s organs are damaged and deprived of oxygen and nutrients.

In severe cases, blood pressure will drop and the heart weakens, causing septic shock—this is where multiple vital organs such as the liver, kidneys, and lungs may fail. Therefore, the causes, signs, and symptoms of sepsis are very important to keep in mind.
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How Do You Get Sepsis (Blood Infection)?

The most common cause of sepsis is a bacterial infection in the bloodstream, also known as bacteremia. Bacteremia will sometimes go away by itself, or it can lead to sepsis if the immune system fails to remove the bacteria. The infection can begin anywhere bacteria enters the body; it can even result from something as seemingly innocent as a scraped knee.

That said, sepsis can also occur from other infections, including appendicitis, pneumonia, a urinary tract infection (UTI), meningitis, and a kidney infection. Sepsis may also accompany osteomyelitis (a bone infection). Sometimes, the causes of sepsis may include candida or other types of fungi. If a patient suffering from septic shock recently had surgery, a deep or superficial infection as a result of the incision can cause sepsis.

Sepsis is thought to affect over one million Americans every year. The number of sepsis-associated hospitalizations had increased from 621,000 to 1,141,000 between 2000 and 2008. Anyone can get sepsis, especially those with weakened immune systems, plus the elderly, infants, children, and infants.

The growing number of sepsis patients may also be due to an increase in antibiotic resistance, that is, when certain bacteria adapt to an antibiotic medicine and can no longer be eliminated by it; this then carries a greater risk of getting sepsis caused by bacteremia.

Is Bacterial Sepsis (Blood Infection) Contagious?

Sepsis is not contagious in and of itself, but the infectious agents, or pathogens that cause sepsis can be transmitted from person-to-person. This can be either directly or indirectly transferred from contaminated items such as clothing or utensils, or sometimes a mother may transfer bacteria (group B streptococcus, for example) to her newborn at the time of delivery. Most septic patients will not necessarily transfer sepsis to another person.

Conversely, if the infectious agents are transferred to another person, it’s not a given that the person will necessarily develop sepsis. It’s also important to note that the agents that cause sepsis may remain active for a time after death.

What Does it Mean When Someone Is Septic?

How can you tell if someone has sepsis? Since sepsis can begin anywhere in the body, there are various symptoms associated with the condition. Sepsis is considered difficult to diagnose since its symptoms resemble other conditions.

There are three stages of sepsis: sepsis, severe sepsis, and sepsis shock. Early signs of sepsis may include a fever above 101 degrees or below 96.8 degrees Fahrenheit, a heart rate higher than 90 beats per minute, and a breathing rate above 20 breaths per minute.

Several symptoms indicate severe sepsis, including difficulty breathing, abnormal heart function, abdominal pain, reduced platelet count, decreased urination, a rash or patches of discolored skin, chills due to a lowered body temperature, extreme weakness, unconsciousness, and sudden changes in mental state such as confusion or delirium. Those with septic shock will have severe sepsis symptoms and very low blood pressure that doesn’t respond from simple fluid replacement. Septic shock can lead to major complications, organ failure, and even death.

How Do You Get Bacteria in Your Blood?

As mentioned, bacteremia is bacteria found in the blood, and it can sometimes lead to sepsis. Bacteremia can result from everyday activities, which may include brushing your teeth vigorously—this can lead to bacteria living on the gums being forced into the bloodstream. Bacteria can also enter the bloodstream during digestion. Typically, bacteremia arising as a result of these normal activities is asymptomatic and doesn’t last long because your immune system fights it off.

Medical or dental procedures can also cause bacteremia; bacteria on the surface may enter the bloodstream after being dislodged during a visit to the dentist, or when catheters are placed into the body at a hospital. Bacterial infections such as pneumonia can also allow bacteria to enter the bloodstream, as can childhood bacterial infections such as ear infections, strep throat, or impetigo.

Treating Sepsis Naturally

During the first step of sepsis treatment, the doctor will typically run tests to check for a number of things: bacteria in the blood, excessive acid in the blood, a low platelet count, or an altered white blood cell count. Typical treatment for sepsis includes intravenous therapy to maintain blood pressure, oxygen to maintain adequate blood oxygen levels, and antibiotics to kill the bacteria causing the infection.

Remember: sepsis is a medical emergency, as the infection can spread and progress rapidly. A patient with sepsis must seek medical attention immediately, and they may be treated in the intensive care unit (ICU) at a hospital.

There are also natural treatments for sepsis, but they are best used in conjunction with conventional medical care. The following are a few natural remedies that can help in treating sepsis:

  • Vitamin C: Vitamin C is often low in sepsis patients, so supplementing with it is a great way to boost the immune system. Studies have also observed that the microvascular function of sepsis patients may be improved by vitamin C as an adjunct therapy, according to an experiment published in the journal Antioxidants & Redox Signaling in 2013.
  • Turmeric: An important compound found in turmeric called curcumin is thought to cause an increase in protein levels in the blood, according to a study from Oregon State University in 2012. When blood contains greater amounts of protein, you are better able to prevent and fight infection. Curcumin can also treat the loss of muscle mass associated with sepsis.
  • Garlic: Garlic contains a compound called allicin, which is also effective against sepsis. Allicin will reduce inflammation, boost the immune system, and help fight infection. It’s a good idea to combine garlic and honey to help treat sepsis.
  • Chlorella: Chlorella contains the active ingredient chlorophyll, which is considered the “green blood” of plants. Chlorophyll can improve red blood cell count and carry oxygen in the blood. Chlorophyll will also purify and cleanse the bloodstream. As a result, chlorella supplementation is useful in the recovery from sepsis.
  • Honey: In a study, University of Malaya researchers suggested that honey is important for the treatment of sepsis. It’s thought that honey can help regulate the immune system, which may improve the treatment of sepsis. Honey is also well documented for its antibacterial and antimicrobial activity.
  • Other herbs and remedies: Other herbs and remedies with antibacterial properties include licorice root, goldenseal, South African Geranium, marshmallow (that is, the Althaea officinalis plant), slippery elm, lobelia, lomatium dissectum, sage, oil of oregano, thymus extract, pine bark extract, pelargonium sidoides, grape seed extract, zinc, and vitamin A. Colloidal silver is also considered a natural antibiotic.

Complications and Risk Factors of Sepsis

It’s also important to note that particular complications and risk factors will increase the risk of sepsis, especially in the elderly. An increased sepsis risk in the elderly can result from chronic conditions, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, and obesity.

Others at risk for sepsis include people who use immune-suppressing drugs such as steroids and organ transplant rejection prevention drugs, those with burns or other injuries, and people being treated in an ICU (for conditions other than sepsis). Sepsis is also linked with other common conditions in the elderly, including dementia, malnutrition, and hypothyroidism.

It’s estimated that 28% to 50% of sepsis patients will die. The chances a person will survive septic shock depend on the number of organs affected or that have failed, and how soon you begin treatment. Septic shock complications can include abnormal blood clotting, kidney failure or injury, heart failure, and respiratory failure.

Sources for Today’s Article:
Wilson, J.X., “Evaluation of Vitamin C for Adjuvant Sepsis Therapy,” Antioxidant and Redox Signaling, 2013; 19(17): 2,129–2,140, doi: 10.1089/ars.2013.5401.

Mandal, M.D., et al., “Honey: its Medicinal Property and Antibacterial Activity,” Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine, 2011; 1(2): 154–160, doi: 10.1016/S2221-1691(11)60016-6.
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Jon Yaneff, CNP

About the Author, Browse Jon's Articles

Jon Yaneff is a holistic nutritionist and health researcher with a background in journalism. After years of a hectic on-the-go, fast food-oriented lifestyle as a sports reporter, Jon knew his life needed a change. He began interviewing influential people in the health and wellness industry and incorporating beneficial health and wellness information into his own life. Jon’s passion for his health led him to the certified nutritional practitioner (CNP) program at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition. He graduated with first... Read Full Bio »