Sepsis: An Infection That Can Kill

Understand What Sepsis Is and How It Is Treated

Blood Tests Image
Blood Tests Can Determine if Infection Enters the Blood Stream. Image: © Nicholas Everleigh/Getty Images

Sepsis Explained

Sepsis is an infection of the blood stream. This type of infection starts as a local infection, such as an infected tooth.  Sometimes the infection is minor, in some cases, the individual ignored an infection that they knew was present, and in some cases the patient sought treatment and the treatment just didn't work.  For whatever reason, there is an active bacterial infection in the body and it finds its way from an infected tooth or the appendix or some other site, and enters the bloodstream.

 Once it is in the blood it circulates around the entire body and is called sepsis.

Ok, so there is an infection in the blood, take an antibiotic and everything will be fine, right? It isn't that simple. Sepsis can become a life-threatening condition and it can strike after surgery, or after something as simple as a urinary tract infection. The scary part is that the original infection can be so minor that some people never find out where the infection started. 

Sepsis needs only a tiny portal of entry for an infection to enter the blood stream.  Something as simple as a crack in the skin between toes can allow an infection (like athlete's foot) to enter the body, becoming cellulitis and worsening to spread through the blood stream.  This type of small infection can be anywhere in the body: the urinary tract, an infected tooth, even a boil on the skin.

Article: All About Sepsis

Why Sepsis is So Serious

Sepsis is so dangerous because of the body's reaction to it and the difficulty we face on a daily basis trying to prevent infection.

If sepsis worsens or fails to respond to antibiotic treatment, it can become septic shock and lead to a high fever, confusion, racing heart and breathing that is very fast.  The blood pressure can plummet. The body is fighting so hard to control the infection and maintain blood flow, yet the infection is on a rampage and the body has difficulty fighting back, even with antibiotics.

Sepsis can strike out of the blue, and is diagnosed with blood cultures that indicate infection has reached the bloodstream.  When sepsis becomes septic shock, it hits hard and without mercy. Patients can go from feeling normal to hospitalized in an ICU with full supportive measures in 24-48 hours. Sometimes the source of infection can be located and treated with surgery or other means, for other patients the source is never known.

Luckily, septic shock is not a common condition, and sepsis usually responds to treatment before it leads to shock. Septic shock is more likely to happen after surgery for an infection than to develop from a garden variety urinary tract infection. Still, if you are feeling lousy, know you have an infection and start to develop a serious fever along with feeling faint and breathing fast, don't ignore it. This is one of those times where you are better safe than sorry, especially if you are recovering from surgery.

Treatment of Sepsis

The treatment of sepsis requires antibiotic therapy.

 For some infections, multiple IV antibiotics are used to treat the problem.  If these antibiotics are not effective, or if the infection has become severe, the patient may require ICU level care.  In the ICU, the patient will receive supportive care which will include IV fluids and may require advanced care including being maintained on a ventilator and medications to increase blood pressure.

While most patients do not experience an infection that becomes severe enough to require intensive care, those that do are extremely ill and are truly critically ill.  This is rare, but it does happen, particularly in the very old or in patients who have many different health problems in addition to the presence of infection.  Patients who have chronic and recurrent infections are also at risk of developing a severe infection.  

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