Septic Embolus

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If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with a septic embolus, you likely have many questions about your condition, including how and why you got a septic embolism, what to expect, and whether there is any treatment for it.

What is a Septic Embolus?

A septic embolus is a type of infection inside a blood vessel. This term specifically refers to an infection that started in one part of the body and traveled through blood vessels to reach another part of the body, possibly blocking one or more blood vessels.

Typically, a septic embolism is a bacterial infection that originates in the heart valves. This may be associated with infective endocarditis, which means an infection of the heart. An infection in the heart can result in a small blood clot, which may travel to other parts of the body.

When a bacterial infection or an infected blood clot travels from the heart to the brain, it can block a blood vessel in the brain, causing a stroke. Strokes resulting from a septic embolism are classified as septic strokes, which means infected strokes.

Causes of a Septic Embolus

  • Infected intravenous (IV) line
  • Implanted devices or catheters in the body
  • Heart valve infection
  • Endocarditis
  • Soft-tissue infection in the body
  • Certain dental procedures
  • Infected deep vein thrombosis DVT (blood clot in the veins)
  • A weak immune system
  • Periodontal disease
  • Intravenous (IV) drug use

There are some lifestyle factors that are known to contribute to the risk of septic embolus.

Intravenous drug use, in particular, increases the risk of a harmful infection that can cause endocarditis or septic emboli. Typically, when IV drug use is the cause of septic embolus, it begins when bacteria on the skin enter the body and cause an infection, which may develop slowly or may progress rapidly.

Infective endocarditis may cause destruction of the valves located in the heart, potentially resulting in complications such as congestive heart failure and recurrent septic embolism.

Symptoms of Septic Embolism

There are a number of symptoms of septic embolism, but they tend to be non-specific symptoms along the lines of 'feeling lousy.' This is one of the reasons that it takes a while to reach a diagnosis of septic embolus. If you persistently experience the symptoms of septic embolism, you doctor will do a detailed medical check up to search for the cause of your symptoms.

The following are the symptoms of septic embolism:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Sharp chest or back pain
  • Numbness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Persistent cough
  • Tenderness in the spleen
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Inflammation

Diagnosis of a Septic Embolism

A septic embolism can be difficult to diagnose. Most people with septic embolism have a positive blood culture. This means that bacteria are detected in the blood. A positive blood culture helps direct your treatment if you have septic embolism, because your doctor can identify which bacteria is present- and thus which antibiotic is expected to be most effective.

A positive blood culture does not define the location of the emboli or the cause of the infection.

Other diagnostic tests are used to further evaluate septic embolus, to locate the area of infection and to determine the extent of the infection.

Diagnostic tests include:

  • Complete blood count CBC
  • Angiogram- a in image of the blood vessels
  • MRI
  • Transesophageal echocardiogram
  • Electrocardiogram
  • Chest X-ray

Treatment for Septic Embolism

Treatment for septic embolism includes antibiotics to target the bacteria. However, sometimes antibiotics are not completely effective and, in some cases, surgery is necessary to repair a heart valve damaged by the infection.

Prevention of Septic Embolism

Septic embolism cannot always be prevented, but sometimes it can. Some of the preventative measures that can protect against septic embolus include:

  • Maintaining good dental health
  • Avoiding skin infections
  • Avoiding body piercings, which can become infected
  • Avoiding tattoos, which can become infected
  • Prompt medical attention for skin infections
  • Preventive antibiotics before medical or dental procedures

A Word From Verywell

If you have been diagnosed with an unusual condition such as septic embolus, you might not know where to turn. Use these tips to get the most out of your doctor visits so that you can become an empowered patient as you recover.

Sources:

Unusual Cerebral Emboli, Zakhari N, Castillo M, Torres C, Neuroimaging Clin N Am. 2016 Feb;26(1):147-63

Edited by Heidi Moawad MD

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