What Is Septicemia?

Septicemia Is Dangerous, Especially for Older Americans

Ill hospital patient
Ill hospital patient. Getty Images/Sean Gallup/Getty Images News

Septicemia is a serious infection most often caused by bacteria in the bloodstream. It's sometimes known as blood poisoning. Septicemia often occurs in people with weak immune systems, and can be very dangerous, especially in older adults.

The bacteria that cause septicemia don't start out in the bloodstream. Instead, the problem usually starts as a bacterial infection elsewhere in the body — possibly as a urinary tract infection, a lung infection, an infection somewhere in your digestive tract or even a dental abscess.

However, as the infection gets worse, it can then spread into your bloodstream, leading to septicemia.

Septicemia isn't quite the same thing as sepsis, even though many people use the two terms interchangeably. Technically, "septicemia" is defined as the infection in the bloodstream, while "sepsis" is the body's response to this infection.

Possible Symptoms of Septicemia Include Fever

In septicemia, the problems arise from the toxins released by the bacteria in your bloodstream. These toxins can have a severe impact on many of your organs. In the worst cases, these toxins can actually cause your organs to shut down. That's what makes septicemia a medical emergency.

Symptoms of septicemia include:

  • a high (above 100.4 degrees) or unusually low (below 98.6 degrees) body temperature
  • rapid breathing (more than 20 breaths per minute)
  • rapid pulse (more than 90 beats per minute)
  • chills
  • heavy sweating
  • mental confusion
  • decreased urination

Diagnosis of Septicemia Made Through Testing

The symptoms of septicemia can overlap with symptoms of numerous other conditions, including bad cases of influenza and stomach flu (gastroenteritis). To make matters worse, both of those conditions (and many others) can lead to septicemia.

That's why you should always seek medical help for any serious symptoms you're having.

To properly diagnose septicemia, your doctor will take a detailed medical history and likely will perform blood tests looking for the underlying infection. Specifically, a white cell count of greater than 12,000 cells per microliter or less than 4,000 cells per microliter may indicate septicemia (a normal white blood cell count is 4,500 to 10,000 cells per microliter). Your doctor may also test your urine or your respiratory mucous for bacteria in order to identify the infection.

If those tests fail to pinpoint the source of the septicemia, then your medical team may order x-rays, CT scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in an effort to spot the original infection.

Septicemia Treatment: Intravenous Antibiotics

If you arrive at the hospital with symptoms of septicemia, it's likely that your medical team will order intravenous antibiotics right away, even before they determine the source of your infection.

That's because the condition can be so dangerous — even a short delay in treating the infection could cause the bacteria to overwhelm your organs. 

You may also receive fluids or other medications intravenously. These can help to stabilize your system.

Patients with septicemia likely will spend about a week in the hospital, and may spend most or all of that time in the intensive care unit.

What Else Do You Need to Know About Septicemia?

Septicemia is more likely to occur in the elderly because your immune systems naturally decline in strength as we age. Premature infants are another at-risk group, because their immune systems haven't yet fully developed.

Septicemia is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States for older adults, and deaths from the condition are increasing in older Americans.

Men appear more likely to get septicemia than women, and having diabetes or cancer also may make you more likely to have the illness. You can develop a bacterial infection that leads to septicemia at home, but people in long-term care facilities or those who are being treated in hospitals are at high risk of developing such an infection.

Septicemia is also known as blood poisoning, sepsis, and SIRS (Systematic Inflammatory Response Syndrome).

Sources:

Dombrovskiy VY et al. Rapid increase in hospitalization and mortality rates for severe sepsis in the United States: a trend analysis from 1993 to 2003. Critical Care Medicine. 2007 May;35(5):1244-50.

Martin GS et al. The epidemiology of sepsis in the United States from 1979 through 2000. New England Journal of Medicine. 2003 Apr 17;348(16):1546-54.

National Library of Medicine. Septicemia fact sheet. Accessed Oct. 27, 2015.

Salive ME et al. Risk factors for septicemia-associated mortality in older adults. Public Health Reports. 1993 Jul-Aug;108(4):447-53.

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