Sepsis and Septic Shock: Understanding The Differences

What You Should Know About Sepsis and Septic Shock

close-up of surgeons hands making an incision in a patient
Surgical Incision Infection Can Be a Source of Sepsis. Stockbyte/Getty Images

Question: The Difference Between Sepsis and Septic Shock

What is the difference between sepsis and septic shock?

Answer:

Sepsis is the name given to a blood infection typically caused by bacteria. Sepsis is also known as a blood poisoning, bacteremia, and septicemia. This condition is an infection that is present in one area of the body, such as a tooth, enters the blood and becomes a systemic problem, moving through the body.

 

Sepsis can start with almost any type of infection, ranging from minor infections (urinary tract infection, abscessed tooth, athlete's foot) to serious ones (meningitis). Some patients who become septic were completely unaware of their initial infection. With a typical infection, the body responds to the threat of infection, keeping the infection at the site of origin. Treatment with antibiotics is typically the first course of treatment if the body needs the additional help. When the body is unable to contain the infection in the original site, it can spread in the blood, which is sepsis.  A patient is typically diagnosed with sepsis after blood cultures indicate that there is infection in the blood.  Sepsis is rather common and can be treated, in most cases, with antibiotics. 

Septic Shock

Septic shock is a very serious condition that results from uncontrolled sepsis.  Signs of septic shock include low blood pressure, a rapid heart rate, altered mental status, and the need for a ventilator.

Septic shock is life-threatening and requires immediate attention. Patients who have septic shock are typically treated in the ICU where they can have around-the-clock care. They often require large amounts of IV fluid, medication to support blood pressure and multiple antibiotics.

Sepsis After Surgery

Sepsis is more common after surgery for several reasons.

First, urinary tract infections are more common after surgery, and these infections can lead to sepsis. Second, an incision is an opening into the body through which infection can begin. Surgery takes a toll on the body and weakens the immune system, even if the procedure is a minor one, which can make infections more likely.

It is important to remember that not all infections will become sepsis, and even fewer will become septic shock. Many infections are so minor that we may not even realize we have them, and the vast majority of infections that require treatment respond very well to antibiotics. After surgery, it is imperative to be mindful of the signs and symptoms of infection.

Unfortunately, while rare, sepsis and septic shock can attack the young and the healthy. It is not uncommon for someone to seem completely well and normal one day, and be incredibly sick with sepsis, or even septic shock, 48 hours later. The risk of death is significant if sepsis leads to septic shock, with approximately 40% of septic shock patients dying, even with treatment.

Sources:

Sepsis and Septic Shock. Merck Manual of Medical Information, 2nd Home Edition. Accessed March, 2011. http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/print/sec17/ch191/ch191c.html

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