Answers to Your Questions About Sepsis

December 11, 2019

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1.7 million adults in the United States develop sepsis each year. Infectious Disease Specialist Fernando Sanchez, MD, provides need-to-know information about this life-threatening condition, including symptoms to be on the lookout for and potential treatments.

Q: What is sepsis?

Sepsis occurs when your body has an extreme reaction to an existing infection, triggering a potentially deadly chain reaction. Without timely treatment, sepsis can lead to organ failure, tissue damage and even death. While anyone can be affected, certain individuals are at increased risk for sepsis, including adults 65 or older and children younger than 1, people with weakened immune systems, and people with chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, lung disease, cancer and kidney disease.

Q: What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of sepsis are like those of any infection, but can also include things like confusion, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, extreme discomfort, and clammy or sweaty skin. People sometimes wait or mistake the symptoms of sepsis for something else, and by the time they get to the emergency room they are in septic shock. This is a severe condition where the body’s blood pressure drops to a dangerously low level.

ACT FAST. If you think you may have an infection or sepsis, call your doctor or go to the nearest emergency room immediately and say you are concerned about sepsis.

Q: How is sepsis diagnosed?

It can be challenging to diagnose sepsis in its early stages because the signs can be varied, subtle and confusing. We start with vital signs (heart rate and blood pressure), blood tests, and possibly an X-ray or CT scan. There is no one test for sepsis, so we are looking for an infection and seeing how the body is responding to it. Common conditions that can lead to sepsis include pneumonia, urinary tract infections, gallbladder infections and appendicitis.

Q: How is sepsis treated?

Antibiotics are given for the infection, and IV fluids are administered to support blood pressure and major organ systems. We also look for the source of the infection and attempt to resolve it through draining or surgery, if needed. To help avoid sepsis, it’s important to take good care of any chronic conditions you may have and take steps to prevent infections, including practicing good hygiene and keeping cuts clean and covered until they heal.

If you or someone else needs emergency help, call 9-1-1 immediately.