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(Blood Poisoning; Septicemia)



Sepsis is a serious problem from an infection. It is an overreaction of the body to the infection. It can lead to life-threatening organ damage.


Causes    TOP

The body releases chemicals into the blood to help fight infections. Sepsis is an extreme form of this reaction. An excess amount of chemicals is released into the blood. These chemicals cause a chain reaction that can slow or stop blood flow to organs. It can lead to organ failure and dangerous low blood pressure called septic shock.


Risk Factors    TOP

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

Symptoms    TOP

Early symptoms may include:

  • Fever
  • Low body temperature— hypothermia
  • Fast breathing or heartbeat
  • Changes in thought process, awareness, behavior, mood, and other mental processes
  • Weakness

Early warning signs may include:

  • Infection that is not getting better or is getting worse
  • Feeling worse or not improving after surgery

Diagnosis    TOP

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor may suspect sepsis based on history 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.


Treatment    TOP

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 and provide support when needed. 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 complications such as blood glucose problems or pain

Surgery may 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 during recovery. Services may be available to assist with return to normal activity.


Prevention    TOP

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


Alberta Health

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 June 28, 2019.

Sepsis in adults. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115805/Sepsis-in-adults . Updated March 20, 2018. Accessed June 28, 2019.

Sepsis treatment in adults. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T316889/Sepsis-treatment-in-adults . Updated April 2, 2018. Accessed June 28, 2019.

What is Sepsis? Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/sepsis/what-is-sepsis.html#anchor_1547214212 . Updated June 22, 2018. Accessed June 28, 2019.

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 May 2019 by David L. Horn, MD, FACP
Last Updated: 6/28/2019

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