What is Sepsis? and How to Notice the Warning Signs

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that develops when the body has an extreme and uncontrolled reaction to an infection. Common causes of sepsis include pneumonia and urinary tract infection. However, any infection, including COVID-19 and influenza, can lead to sepsis.

Knowing the signs of sepsis can help you know when to seek help in order to prevent organ damage or even death. 

Signs of Sepsis

Sepsis can be easy to miss in its early stages because symptoms, like increased heart rate, rapid breathing, fever, or low temperature and shivering, can be similar to symptoms of common infections, like influenza. When sepsis progresses, symptoms can become worse and may include:

  • Low blood pressure or weak pulse
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Altered mental state or confusion/disorientation
  • Extreme pain or discomfort
  • Clammy or sweaty skin
  • Urinating less than normal

How Does Sepsis Develop?

Many types of infectious microbes, like bacteria, viruses, and fungi, can cause sepsis. When germs or organisms enter the body and begin to multiply, they can cause infection and illness. If the infection is not controlled, the body starts to send infection-fighting chemicals throughout the entire body, instead of only to the infection site. These infection-fighting chemicals cause widespread inflammation (swelling) in the entire body, which can lead to blood clots and therefore reduced blood flow, oxygen, and nutrients to the body’s tissues and vital organs.

It’s important to know that sepsis itself is not contagious, but some infections that can lead to sepsis are contagious and can be spread to other people.

Who Is At Risk of Developing Sepsis?

Anyone can develop sepsis from an infection, and any infection can lead to sepsis. There’s no way to predict who will develop sepsis and who will not, but certain people are more susceptible to sepsis. People who are at an increased risk of developing sepsis include:

  • Babies and infants
  • Older adults aged 65 and older
  • Anyone with a compromised or weakened immune system
  • Anyone with a chronic health condition, like cancer, diabetes, or kidney disease
  • Anyone with a serious injury, such as a burn injury
  • Anyone who has recently been hospitalized

How is Sepsis Treated?

If sepsis is diagnosed early on, it can generally be treated at home with antibiotics. If sepsis progresses and causes tissue or organ damage, treatment will be administered in a hospital where doctors can closely monitor the patient. 

Many people who are treated for sepsis make a complete recovery. However, some patients, especially those who have preexisting chronic conditions like diabetes or kidney disease, may experience organ damage as a result of sepsis and need lifelong treatment. People who develop severe sepsis are also at an increased risk of developing sepsis again in the future.

What To Do if You Think You or a Loved One Might Have Sepsis

Sepsis is considered a medical emergency. If you believe that you or a loved one may have sepsis, seek medical care immediately. If you or a loved one has an infection that is not getting better, seek medical care immediately. Sepsis must be diagnosed by a medical professional. 

Your doctor will make a diagnosis based on your symptoms and a blood test.