Recognizing the Symptoms of Sepsis

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Symptoms of SepsisSepsis ( Blood Poisoning ) is a serious medical emergency that requires immediate medical attention. It is not a disease but is instead a potentially life-threatening reaction to a disease. Specifically, sepsis refers to a body-wide inflammatory reaction as your immune system, for lack of a better phrase, freaks out. Knowing how to recognize the symptoms of sepsis is key to ensuring fast treatment of this rare but significant complication.

The terms “sepsis” and “septicemia” are sometimes used interchangeably, but the two are not quite the same. Septicemia refers to the condition known as blood poisoning, which is when a bacteria infection reaches the blood stream and begins to circulate the invader and their toxins throughout the body. If not addressed, septicemia can lead to sepsis, but one can exist without the other.

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Causes of Sepsis

Technically speaking, any infection is capable of causing sepsis and cases have been known to trigger from events as minor as a scraped knee or a small cut. However, infections affecting the lungs, kidney, abdomen, or bloodstream are the most likely to trigger a septic reaction. In particular, appendicitis, pneumonia, meningitis, urinary tract infections, staph, and strep infections are the most common culprits. Additionally, there are several risk factors that raise the chance of a septic reaction:

  • Being over the age of 65
  • A compromised or weakened immune system
  • Anyone who has recently had an invasive medical procedure or surgery
  • Diabetes
  • Deep wounds or burns
  • Urinary or IV catheter
  • An antibiotic-resistant strain of bacteria

Symptoms and Signs of Sepsis

Sepsis is a three-stage condition that triggers as a result of an existing infection. Each stage is diagnosed by presenting with certain symptoms.

Stage 1: Sepsis

The initial stage of sepsis comes with a high or low temperature, rapid heart rate, rapid breathing, and a confirmed or suspected existing infection. There are specific values for each that your doctors will look for when trying to confirm a septic reaction, but for patients, the CDC has provided the following acronym:

  • Shivering, fever, or very cold
  • Extreme pain or discomfort
  • Pale or discolored skin
  • Sleepy, difficult to rouse, or confused
  • “I feel like I might die”
  • Shortness of breath

Stage 2: Severe Sepsis

In severe sepsis, the inflammation has begun to trigger blood clots and leaking blood vessels that have the potential to disrupt circulation and blood flow across the body. Severe sepsis is characterized by developing signs of organ failure including:

  • Decreased urine output
  • Sudden change in mental status
  • Decreased platelet count
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Erratic heartbeat
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting

Stage 3: Septic Shock

The final stage is the most direct. Septic shock is when your body experiences a severe drop in blood pressure that does not respond to getting more fluids. Septic shock kills about half its victims and requires prompt medical attention to survive.

The good news, if that term can apply here, is that most cases of sepsis appear in patients who are already hospitalized and being monitored by doctors. If you begin to show signs of stage 1 and have recently had surgery, been hospitalized, or are dealing with another infection, seek medical attention immediately.

Treating Sepsis

Sepsis requires prompt treatment both to eliminate the infection that is causing the reaction and to prevent the body-wide inflammation from killing you before that happens. Treatment must be delivered as early and aggressively as possible.

  • Antibiotics: Sepsis occurs in response to an infection, often bacterial but not always. In cases where a patient is showing signs of sepsis but does not have a confirmed infection, broad-spectrum antibiotics will be employed immediately and tests will be run to determine what the exact underlying disease is. Once the infection has been identified, a more appropriate medicine will be employed to directly target the culprit.
  • Vasopressors: The dramatic loss of blood pressure is the signal for septic shock. Vasopressors are a type of medication that constricts blood vessels and helps to increase the body’s blood pressure. They are used to try and stave off or reverse the final stage of sepsis.
  • Corticosteroids and immune modifiers: Corticosteroids will be almost certainly employed to try and reduce inflammation across the body. Other drugs that can weaken the body’s immune response are likely to be used as well in order to try and lessen the severe response of sepsis.
  • Painkillers and sedatives: Sepsis is, to put it mildly, incredibly unpleasant to experience. Painkillers and sometimes sedation are used to help keep the patient as comfortable as possible while their body battles it out.
  • Dialysis and respiration: As the body’s organs begin to struggle and fail, additional measures like kidney dialysis or artificial respiration will need to be used to keep the patient alive.
  • Surgery: A key part of treating sepsis is removing the original cause of the inflammation. Depending on what the triggering disease is, surgery may be required to drain an abscess, remove diseased tissue or for outright amputation.

Complications

In addition to the primary unpleasantness of sepsis, the condition can result in several long and short-term complications. The most notable one is the fact that sepsis can cause a great deal of blood clots to form throughout the body. If not dealt with, these clots can block blood flow to already distressed parts of the body and lead to gangrene in the extremities or even organ failure. Additional complications stem from permanent damage the body can sustain as a result of a septic reaction. This can include long-term muscle weakness or damage, diminished or lost organ function, and having to live with the results of an amputation.

Sepsis can be a scary condition to face and minutes count when it comes to treatment. Being vigilant and aware of what your body is telling you, especially if you fall into one of the riskier categories mentioned earlier, is the key to keeping yourself safe and ensuring the best possible outcome.

Sources for Today’s Article:
O’Connell, K., et al., Healthline web site, September 26, 2015; http://www.healthline.com/health/sepsis#Overview1.
“Sepsis,” Mayo Clinic web site, July 23, 2014; http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sepsis/basics/definition/con-20031900.
“Sepsis Questions and Answers,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web site, October 5, 2015; http://www.cdc.gov/sepsis/basic/qa.html.
“Sepsis or Septicemia (Blood Infection) Symptoms, Causes, Treatments,” WebMD web site, January 21, 2015; http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/sepsis-septicemia-blood-infection?page=2.


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Dr. Victor Marchione, MD

About the Author, Browse Victor's Articles

Victor Marchione, MD received his Bachelor of Science Degree in 1973 and his Medical Degree from the University of Messina in 1981. He has been licensed and practicing medicine in New York and New Jersey for over 20 years. Dr. Marchione is a respected leader in the field of smoking cessation and pulmonary medicine. He has been featured on ABC News and World Report, CBS Evening News and the NBC Today Show and is the editor of the popular The... Read Full Bio »