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Sepsis (Blood Infection)

Sepsis is an emergency blood infection that can lead to death within hours without proper treatment.

Sepsis occurs when the body has an extreme immunological reaction to an infection. In time, this reaction can cause changes in heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature. It can also cause organ damage and shock.

A virus, bacteria, or fungus can trigger sepsis (blood poisoning), and can be present anywhere on the body.

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What Is Sepsis?

Sepsis or blood poisoning is a life-threatening extreme response to an infection you already have.

In the U.S., about 1.7 million people get sepsis each year.

It's a leading cause of death in hospitals each year in the U.S., claiming about 250,000 lives. Anywhere from one-third to one-half of people who die in the hospital have sepsis.

How long does it take for sepsis to set in?

According to the Physician-Patient Alliance for Health & Safety, sepsis can progress quickly, causing death in as little as 12 hours. Sepsis Alliance states, the risk of death increases by 7.6% for every hour that passes without treatment.

Urgent treatment for blood poisoning is essential. Getting a fast, correct diagnosis can be the difference between life and death.

What causes sepsis?

Sepsis starts with an infection. The infection could begin with any kind of germ, but certain bacteria are more often the cause of sepsis than other germs.

Four types of infections more likely to lead to sepsis compared to other types of infections are:

  • Lung, such as pneumonia or COVID-19. A little more than one out of three people with sepsis had a lung infection.
  • UTIs, including bladder and kidney infections. About one out of four people with sepsis had a UTI.
  • Skin, including MRSA and other staph infections. About one in 10 people with sepsis had a skin infection.
  • Gut, including appendicitis and infections in the gallbladder, liver, or bowels. About one in 10 people with sepsis had a gut infection.

Blood infection risk factors and complications

Some people have a greater risk than others of getting sepsis after an infection.

About 90% of adults and 70% of children who got sepsis had a condition that put them at greater risk for it.

People with a higher risk include those who:

  • Are 65 years old or older.
  • Are under 1-year-old.
  • Have weakened immune systems.
  • Have had a recent severe illness or hospital stay.
  • Have chronic health problems such as diabetes, lung disease, cancer, or kidney disease.
  • Are pregnant.
  • Have survived sepsis in the past.

If a person doesn't receive a sepsis diagnosis early enough, they're much less likely to survive.

The best way to save someone from dying from sepsis is to notice the symptoms quickly and get treatment right away.

Can I prevent sepsis?

The best way to prevent sepsis is to prevent getting an infection.

There are four major things you can do to reduce the risk of an infection:

  • Take care of chronic or other health conditions that need regular medication or other treatment.
  • Receive all of the vaccines that the CDC says you should get, including the COVID-19 vaccine and boosters.
  • Follow good hygiene practices and wash your hands often.
  • Clean any cuts or wounds you have and cover them until they heal.
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What Are the Symptoms of Sepsis?

The first sign of sepsis may be an unusually high or low temperature, shaking, or chills. Seek medical treatment right away if you have any of the symptoms below, especially if you've had a recent infection.

The six main symptoms of sepsis are:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Fever, chills, shivering, or feeling very cold.
  • High heart rate or low blood pressure.
  • Extreme pain or discomfort.
  • Sweaty or clammy skin.
  • Being confused or feeling a bit lost.

If you see someone with many or all of these symptoms, take them to the emergency department or call 911 right away. This is especially crucial if the person is high risk or has an infection.

If you have some of these symptoms but are low risk and don't have a known infection, you should call your doctor.

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How Do You Diagnose Sepsis?

To diagnose sepsis, a health care provider must see you in person. They'll:

  • Ask about your symptoms and medical history.
  • Check your temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing.
  • Draw blood to test it for chemicals that reveal an infection or damage to organs.
  • Possibly order an x-ray, CT scan, or other imaging tests to look for the source of an infection.
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How Do You Treat Sepsis?

UPMC's providers all have training in knowing the signs of sepsis and for acting quickly to diagnose and treat it.

The goal of treating sepsis is to cure the infection causing it to help the immune system return to normal. Sepsis treatment will also try to stop organ damage from occurring.

Treating sepsis caused by bacteria

We may give you an IV with antibiotics to treat an infection caused by bacteria.

Some common side effects from antibiotics are:

  • Nausea.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Not feeling hungry.
  • Discomfort in your belly.
  • Rash.
  • Dizziness.
  • Yeast infections.

Some people have allergies to certain types of antibiotics or other medications. Make sure your doctor knows this so they can find treatments that are safe for you.

C. diff infection as a side effect of antibiotic use

One possible serious side effect of antibiotics is C. diff — a bacterial infection. It occurs because antibiotics can kill off "good" bacteria in your body that normally protect it against C. diff.

According to the CDC, the risk of C. diff is seven to 10 times higher when taking antibiotics.

The most common symptom of C. diff is severe, watery diarrhea at least three times a day. Some people report having severe diarrhea up to 10 to 15 times a day.

Other common symptoms of C. diff are:

  • Fever.
  • Stomach pain, cramping, or tenderness.
  • Not feeling hungry.
  • Nausea.
  • Rapid or increased heart rate.
  • Blood or pus in the stool.

If you're taking antibiotics and have any of these symptoms, let a doctor or nurse know right away.

Antibiotics that most often cause C. diff are:

  • Clindamycin.
  • Cephalosporins.
  • Penicillin.
  • Fluoroquinolones.

Treating sepsis caused by a virus

If the infection came from a virus or other germ, doctors will only give you antiviral drugs that can fight that germ. Antibiotics don't help viral infections.

Side effects from antiviral drugs vary by drug, but some common ones are:

  • An upset stomach.
  • Vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Dizziness.
  • Tiredness.
  • Feeling anxious.
  • A mild headache.

Ask your doctor about possible side effects of the antiviral drug they give you.

Tell your doctor if you have severe side effects, such as:

  • Trouble breathing.
  • New fever or chills.
  • Confusion.
  • Problems speaking.
  • A severe headache.
  • Shaking, trembling, or trouble moving.
  • Numbness or tingling in your arms, legs, fingers, or feet.

Treating sepsis complications

If someone with sepsis has trouble getting enough oxygen to all of their organs, doctors may give them:

  • IV fluids.
  • Medicine to increase their blood pressure.
  • An oxygen mask.

If advanced sepsis caused kidney damage, you may need dialysis to help do the kidneys' job.

Some people may also need a breathing tube or surgery to remove infected or damaged tissue.

Can a person recover from blood poisoning?

Sepsis is a very serious condition but with prompt treatment, recovery is possible. Your odds of making a complete recovery improve when doctors recognize blood poisoning and act quickly. But it may take months or even years to fully rebound from a blood infection.

Your recovery may depend on:

  • How quickly you received treatment.
  • The number of organs affected.
  • The type of bacteria that caused the infection.
  • Your age.
  • Your overall health.

Without treatment, most people who go into septic shock — the final stage of sepsis — will die. Merck Manual says, even with treatment, 30% to 40% of people who progress to septic shock die.

According to Sepsis Alliance, some communities have a higher rate of septic shock deaths. Black and Hispanic children are 25% more likely to die from sepsis than non-Hispanic White children. American Indians and Alaskan Native people are 1.6 times more likely to die from sepsis than the national average.

Complications after sepsis recovery

People who recover from sepsis are at risk for complications in the months and years that follow. Possible long-term complications of blood poisoning include:

  • Decreased mental function.
  • Insomnia.
  • Kidney failure.
  • Loss of limbs.
  • Loss of self-esteem.
  • Lung problems.
  • Muscle and joint pain.
  • Nightmares, hallucinations, and panic attacks.

People who've had sepsis in the past are more likely to develop it again. So, it’s especially important to act quickly if you get another infection that could lead to sepsis.

Healing from sepsis

There are things you can do to heal physically and emotionally from sepsis, such as:

  • Get rest.
  • Talk about how you feel with loved ones or a therapist.
  • Write in a journal about how you feel, what you think about, or what you can start doing again.
  • Learn about what happened and how you can prevent it in the future.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Slowly add more physical activity into your schedule, without building up too quickly.
  • Write down questions that you need to ask your doctor when you see them next.
  • Ask your family to tell you about what you can't remember.

How long is a hospital stay with sepsis?

If you have sepsis, you’ll need to stay in the hospital until your condition is stable — likely around two weeks. But that can vary greatly depending on your age, overall health, and any complications you experienced.

Your doctor can answer questions based on the specifics of your condition, and when you'll be able to go home.

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Last reviewed by Varidhi Nauriyal MD 2024-04-02.