Sepsis is a serious condition that affects millions of individuals each year. Sepsis accounts for up to half of all the deaths that occur in hospitals throughout the United States. Sepsis, however, doesn't receive nearly as much public attention as other serious health conditions such as heart disease or cancer.

You might not realize that seemingly mild conditions such as food poisoning and urinary tract infections can potentially lead to sepsis. Read on to learn more about what sepsis is, possible symptoms, treatment options, and potential complications.

What Is Sepsis?

According to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, sepsis is an extreme immune response to an infection in the body. The initial infection is caused by germs, typically a bacteria. Sepsis is often linked to infections in hospitals, but you can get this condition anywhere. There are several important aspects of sepsis of which you should be aware.

  • Sepsis is unpredictable and can progress at a rapid pace.
  • Staph, strep and E. coli are germs that sometimes cause sepsis.
  • Blood clotting and inflammation can occur throughout the body.
  • You might be at a higher risk of developing sepsis again if you were previously diagnosed with this condition.

Stages and Types of Sepsis

The International Sepsis Forum describes three types of sepsis: 

  • Uncomplicated sepsis is usually considered a basic infection that millions of individuals experience all the time, such as the flu or a dental infection. Most people that experience this kind of sepsis will not need extensive treatment or hospitalization.
  • Severe sepsis happens to approximately 750,000 people each year in North America and Europe. This type of sepsis occurs along with problems in vital organs such as the heart, lungs and kidneys. These cases typically require treatment in a hospital.
  • Septic shock is the most severe form of sepsis, which happens when low blood pressure accompanies the condition, and it doesn't respond to usual treatments. When this happens, the body doesn't receive enough oxygen to function properly. Septic shock is a very severe condition, with a death rate around 50%.

Symptoms and Causes

It's important to remember that many of the initial symptoms of sepsis are similar to other illnesses. Knowing these symptoms is crucial since this will make it easier to receive effective treatment. The Sepsis Alliance lists several symptoms that are often associated with sepsis:

  • Quick respiratory rate
  • Rapid heart rate (higher than 90 beats per minute)
  • Fever or extremely low body temperature
  • Confusion
  • Extreme pain
  • Swelling in the arms and legs
  • High blood glucose

Prevention and Risks

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 90% of adults and 70% of children diagnosed with sepsis had a prior health condition that likely put them at risk. Since sepsis always follows an infection of some sort, preventing initial infections is the key to preventing sepsis.

Being sure to stay up to date on vaccinations, improving sanitation and promoting general good health are all steps toward preventing sepsis. While anyone can get this condition, some individuals are at a greater risk, including:

  • Infants less than three months old
  • Women who have recently given birth
  • The elderly
  • Those with weakened immune systems
  • Those with chronic diseases, such as cancer or diabetes

Diagnosis and Tests

A primary care physician or an emergency room doctor is usually the first doctor to see to diagnose sepsis. They do so after evaluating the physical symptoms a patient has and can also run tests to check for infection in the body and damage to various organs. Several tests can be used for physicians to diagnose sepsis accurately, including X-rays, ultrasounds, and CT scans. Doctors may also use various blood tests to reach a diagnosis.

A doctor may also take a wound culture or a respiratory secretion test. Stool or urine samples may also be used to make a diagnosis. These tests can also help specify which body functions have been affected. The quicker a diagnosis is made, the less likely you are to have long-term complications from the condition.

Treatment, Procedures, and Medication

Treatment will depend on how severe the sepsis is and if your organs have already been affected by the time a diagnosis has been made. If the sepsis is uncomplicated and has not spread, you may be treated at home with antibiotics. Nearly everyone with severe sepsis or septic shock will be admitted to the hospital and placed in an intensive care unit.

Medications often include antibiotics and sometimes steroids. Mechanical ventilation and fluid replacement are also part of the supportive care when treating sepsis. According to Open Anesthesia, vasopressor therapy is used when fluid replacement fails to restore blood pressure to adequate levels. Vasopressors are anything that raises blood pressure. Drugs that contain adrenaline and dopamine are sometimes used as vasopressors.

After you have been diagnosed with sepsis, you will likely continue with your primary physician if the sepsis was not severe or see a critical care doctor if you were admitted to the hospital. A doctor who specializes in heart, lung, kidney, or liver care may be called in, depending on if there is any damage to your major organs.

It's crucial to maintain good communication with your physician if you or a loved one is suffering from sepsis. The condition can progress rapidly, making it necessary to stay updated on the steps being taken during medical care, especially as sepsis may require several doctors to work together.

Healthy Lifestyle Tips

It's important to know that you can't get sepsis from someone else like catching a cold. It is a condition that happens inside your body. Since those with chronic diseases and weakened immune systems are at greater risk of getting sepsis, a healthy lifestyle may help prevent this condition from occurring.

To prevent sepsis or make the quickest recovery possible after being diagnosed with the condition, you should make healthy choices. Drinking plenty of fluids and getting regular exercise are some ways to stay in the best health possible.

Eating foods that increase your body's natural immunity may also help prevent sepsis. Using nutrition to prevent sepsis from occurring can even be used when an individual is already critically ill. Black tea, cranberry, and ginseng are all believed to help reduce certain bacteria that can lead to or cause sepsis.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine states that providing critical care patients with nutritional formulas within 24 hours of being admitted to ICU can reduce the chance that sepsis will develop. Probiotics given before surgery may also lessen the risk of an infection occurring. A well-balanced diet is important for preventing and managing sepsis.

Conclusion

If you or someone you know may be suffering from sepsis, it's important to learn as much as possible about this condition. You'll need to seek out medical care as quickly as possible whenever sepsis is suspected. It's necessary to take control of your health and communicate with your healthcare providers. Knowing everything from prevention methods and symptoms to the treatment options available will be instrumental in recovering from this condition.