Sepsis is a serious problem caused by the body's reaction to an infection. It can cause severe damage to organs and can be fatal.
The body releases chemicals into the blood to help fight infections. Sepsis is an extreme form of this reaction. Excess chemicals are released into the blood. This causes a chain reaction that can slow or stop blood flow to organs. The low blood flow causes damage to major organs like heart, kidneys, liver, and brain. It can lead to organ failure and a dangerous low blood pressure called septic shock.
Any infection can lead to sepsis. Anyone can get sepsis but the risk is higher in those with:
- Weakened immune system from illness or medical treatment
- Age under 1 year
- Age 65 years or more
- Chronic health conditions such as HIV, diabetes, cancer, kidney or liver disease
Early symptoms may include:
- Low body temperature— hypothermia
- Fast breathing or heartbeat
- Changes in thought process, awareness, behavior, mood, and other mental processes
Early warning signs may include:
- Infection that is not getting better or is getting worse
- Feeling worse or not improving after surgery
The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. The doctor may suspect sepsis based on recent infection and physical exam.
Blood tests and image tests may also be done. They will help to find the infection and track the health of liver and kidneys.
Early, intense treatment in a hospital is important. The sooner treatment is started, the better outcomes tend to be. The goal of treatment is to clear the infection. This will break up the harmful chain reaction. Support will also be needed to limit damage to organs. Steps may include:
- Antibiotics to fight the infection
- Fluids sent straight to blood flow through IV
- Medicine to improve blood pressure and blood flow to organs
- Medicine to manage blood glucose or pain
Surgery may also be needed to clear out infected tissue.
Advanced care will depend on which organs are affected. Steps may include:
- Oxygen therapy to increase oxygen in the blood
- Mechanical ventilation—to assist breathing
- Dialysis—to support kidneys
Sepsis is a serious illness. It will take some time to fully recover. There may be some physical and emotional challenges.
There are no steps to prevent sepsis once you have an infection. Avoid infections when possible. Take care of cuts or wounds. Wash the area well and keep covered until it heals. See a doctor for serious wounds.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Infectious Diseases Society of America
Public Health Agency of Canada
Life After Sepsis. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/sepsis/pdfs/life-after-sepsis-fact-sheet.pdf. Accessed January 28, 2021.
Sepsis in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115805/Sepsis-in-adults. Accessed January 28, 2021.
Sepsis treatment in adults. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T316889/Sepsis-treatment-in-adults. Accessed January 28, 2021.
What is Sepsis? Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/sepsis/what-is-sepsis.html#anchor_1547214212. Accessed January 28, 2021.
10/6/2014 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T905775/Staphylococcus-aureus-bacteremia : Holland TL, Arnold C, et al. Clinical management of Staphylococcus aureus bacteremia: a review. JAMA. 2014;312(13):1330-1341.
Last reviewed January 2021 by David L. Horn, MD, FACP