Septic shock occurs when blood pressure drops very low after an infection. The infection first leads to a reaction called sepsis. Sepsis impairs blood flow. If it worsens, blood pressure drops. Organs cannot get enough oxygen and nutrients. If blood pressure cannot be restored, septic shock happens. Septic shock may result in multiple organ failure and death.
Septic shock is caused by an infection that overwhelms the body. Sepsis can be triggered by many kinds of infections, including:
- Bacterial—most common
- Fungal infections
Toxins Can Spread Through the Bloodstream
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Septic shock is more common in infants and in people over 50 years old. Other things that raise the risk are:
- A weak immune system
- Not having a spleen
- Low white blood cell counts
- Long term diseases
- Previous surgery
Septic shock may cause:
- Fever or low body temperature
- Fast, pounding heartbeat
- Fast breathing or trouble breathing
- Confusion and reduced alertness
- Problems with urination
disseminated intravascular coagulation
Septic shock may also cause symptoms of:
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done.
Tests may include:
- Blood tests
- A swab of tissue—to test for infection
- ECG—to check heart rhythm
Imaging tests—to look for sources of infection, such as
Sepsis and septic shock need care right away. Treatment requires hospitalization and may include:
- IV fluids and oxygen
- Antibiotics or antifungal medicines—to treat infection
- Medicines to increase blood pressure and blood flow
- Corticosteroids—to reduce inflammation
- A mechanical ventilator—to help with breathing, if the lungs fail
- Surgery—to remove dead tissue or drain infections
Other supportive therapies may also be used.
Most cases of septic shock cannot be prevented. Treating infections right away may help.
Rhodes A, Evans LE, Alhazzani W, et al. Surviving sepsis campaign: international guidelines for management of severe sepsis and septic shock: 2016. Intensive Care Med. 2017;43(3):304-377.
Sepsis and septic shock. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/critical-care-medicine/sepsis-and-septic-shock/sepsis-and-septic-shock. AccessedFebruary 25, 2021.
Sepsis in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/sepsis-in-adults . Accessed February 25, 2021.
Sepsis. National Institute of General Medical Sciences website. Available at: https://www.nigms.nih.gov/Education/Pages/factsheet_sepsis.aspx. Accessed February 25, 2021.
Sepsis treatment in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/management/sepsis-treatment-in-adults. Accessed February 25, 2021.
Last reviewed January 2021 by
EBSCO Medical Review Board
Mary Beth Seymour, RN
Last Updated: 2/25/2021