How An Infection Becomes Sepsis or Septic Shock

Understanding Sepsis

Nurse changing surgical bandage on patient
Proper Wound Care Can Prevent Infection. Science Photo Library/Getty Images

What is sepsis? How did a simple infection become a life-threatening illness? How did a routine surgery lead to sepsis and septic shock?

These questions, and many more like them, are common after a loved one (or even you) are diagnosed with a serious infection.  Some people don't even realize they have an infection before they are facing a significant health crisis.  The diagnosis of sepsis may come as a shock, an unexpected finding after having what seemed like a minor issue, such as a urinary tract infection.


How Does Sepsis Start?

Sepsis often starts as a simple local infection.  It may be something as simple as an infected tooth, a boil, a surgical incision or an ear infection.  The original infection can be so minor that you don't even know you have one, or it just doesn't seem like something worth worrying about.  Some sepsis has been known to start with a crack between the toes, caused by athlete's foot.  This can happen in healthy individuals as well as those who are ill. 

Sepsis happens when the small infection, such as an infected tooth, spreads into the bloodstream.  If it is a bacterial infection, we refer to it as bacteremia.  If it is viral we call that viremia.  A person is septic when the infection is spreading through the body via the bloodstream. Another term for this is septicemia.

All About Sepsis

Septic Shock

Things get extremely serious, and can result in death, when the sepsis becomes septic shock.

 Septic shock is when the infection in the bloodstream becomes too much for the body to handle and the patient requires fluids and medications to keep their blood pressure up, and a ventilator to help them breathe.  

Septic Shock patients belong in an ICU and they are often extremely ill.  So ill, in fact, that people can and do die from septic shock.

 Septic shock can and often does cause multi system organ failure, a condition where one or more system of the body is unable to work as well as the body requires.  This may mean that the lungs are not working well enough to supply the body with oxygen, requiring the patient to be placed on a ventilator, or it may mean that the kidneys are not making enough urine. 

Septic shock is an extremely serious type of infection, and requires far more than antibiotics for the patient to survive, although antibiotics will be part of the care provided.

Preventing Infection

While preventing an infection is the ideal solution to the problem, that isn't always possible.  In that case, the best you can do is realize that an infection is present as early as possible.  Do not ignore the signs and symptoms of an infection, even if it is a small one on a finger or toe.  A minor cut that is infected may not require professional medical attention, but take the time to make sure that it is properly cleaned and watch it closely.

Remember that the smallest infection can become sepsis.  You don't have to have a surgical incision to get a major infection.  Something as simple as  a paper cut can cause a break in the skin, and that is the only thing bacteria needs to begin an infection.

A surgical incision just makes it easier for bacteria to find its way into the body. 

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