What Happens When Your Body Is in Septic Shock?

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What do Muppet creator Jim Henson, singer Chuck Brown, and boxer Muhammad Ali have in common? They all died of the same thing: septic shock, triggered by an infection. Sadly, conditions like septic shock can bring the most diverse of people together. Before penicillin was discovered in the early 1900s, dying from an infection and septic shock was common place, no matter who you were. And while penicillin and other antibiotics have saved millions of lives over the years, infections still cause deaths around the world, including over 258,000 people in the United States every year.

What is Septic shock?

Most people know of someone or have heard of someone who died of a common infection, such as pneumonia, influenza or a urinary tract infection. In reality, it’s not the infection that caused the death. It was septic shock, triggered by the infection. Septic shock is a medical emergency. It is a dangerous and life-threatening condition that occurs when your blood pressure drops and stays too low after you have developed an infection.

How does septic shock develop?

When you get an infection, your immune system tries to protect you by producing extra white blood cells that are programmed to seek out and destroy invading organisms. When all goes well, your immune system fights off the infection, although you may need help from some medications such as antibiotics or antivirals. If the organism enters the bloodstream it can quickly multiply and spread throughout the body. As this happens the germ releases toxic substances that poison the blood vessels and aggravate the immune system. Sometimes your immune system may go awry, and instead of fighting the infection, it turns on itself, attacking the healthy cells. When this happens, you develop sepsis. It is your body’s toxic response to the infection.

The first signs of sepsis may be quite vague, but they include low blood pressure, fast heartbeat, or a higher or lower than usual body temperature. Blood tests may show a higher than normal number of white blood cells in your blood. If the infection isn’t treated or controlled at this point, sepsis can progress to severe sepsis. One or more organs, like your kidneys or lungs, start to fail, and tiny blood clots may form in your blood, restricting blood flow to your limbs.

Severe sepsis, if not treated quickly, can lead to septic shock.

How is septic shock treated?

People who are in septic shock need urgent intensive care. The medical team has to approach treatment from different angles for it to be successful:

  • Raise your blood pressure: IV fluids usually help raise blood pressure, but you may need medications called vasopressors. These narrow the blood vessels, which then in turn increases your blood pressure and sends blood to your vital organs.

  • Treat the infection: Your doctors must find out what caused the infection that triggered the sepsis and give the appropriate antibiotics.

  • Provide oxygen: You may have an oxygen mask over your nose and mouth, or a tube just under your nose, to deliver oxygen for you to breathe. If your lungs are failing, you may be intubated, which means a tube will be inserted through your mouth into your trachea, which leads to your lungs. This tube will be attached to a ventilator, which will help you breathe.

  • Surgery: Surgery may be done for two reasons, to clear out infection or to remove dead tissue. Some people with septic shock develop gangrene in their hands, arms, feet, legs, or even their nose and ears. The tiny blood clots that formed in the blood vessels can prevent blood flow to the limbs. Also when the body is in shock, it tries to concentrate the blood flow to the most important parts, such as the brain. If other parts of the body, such as fingers and toes, don’t get good enough blood flow, the tissue can die, causing gangrene. Amputation is the only option once gangrene is present.

Septic shock can almost always be prevented. If you have an infection, it’s important to watch for signs of sepsis. If you suspect that you may have sepsis, go to your local emergency room or urgent care clinic right away. Early treatment can and does save lives.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 6
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