The Hidden Risks of Sepsis: What You Need to Know

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Nurse examining patient in hospital room

Sepsis is a life-threatening response to an infection. Cases of sepsis are increasing every year in the United States, affecting more than a million people a year. As many as half of Americans who develop sepsis will die from it. 

Sepsis can cause your blood pressure to drop. Your heart may weaken. Your internal organs may fail. "Septic shock" is the term doctors use to describe this condition. Early diagnosis offers the best chance of surviving sepsis. The more you know about sepsis, the better your chance of recognizing the danger and receiving treatment. 

What causes sepsis?

Sepsis starts with an infection. Your body’s response to the infection is what causes sepsis. The cause isn't the infection itself. The infection can be major and serious, like pneumonia. It can also be a minor cut or scratch. 

Some infections cause your immune system to go into a body-wide defense reaction. Your immune system may release chemicals into your blood to fight the infection. These chemicals can spread through your blood, causing blood clots

This reaction decreases blood flow to organs like your heart, lungs and kidneys. If these organs don’t get enough oxygen from your blood, you can go into septic shock. 

Who is at risk?

Anyone can get sepsis. Experts think several factors might be causing the increasing rate of sepsis. For instance, more bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics. More procedures are being done in hospitals. People also are living longer with long-term illnesses, putting them at risk of infection and complications, such as sepsis. 

People at higher risk of developing sepsis include those who: 

  • Have a weak immune system. A disease could be the cause of this. Or, you may be taking medications that weaken your immune system.

  • Are very old or very young

  • Have a long-term illness like diabetes, cancer, or liver disease

  • Suffer severe burns or trauma

  • Have a procedure at a hospital

  • Have transplant surgery

What are the symptoms of sepsis?

Spotting sepsis early could save your life. Let your doctor know if you or someone you care for has symptoms of sepsis, especially after an injury or recent infection. Symptoms to watch for include:

In fact, you can use the word “SEPSIS” to remember the symptoms:
S= Shivering, fever or feeling very cold
E= Extreme pain or discomfort
P= Pale or discolored skin
S= Sleepy, difficult to wake up, or confused
I= a sense of “I feel the worst I’ve ever felt.”
S= Shortness of breath

How do doctors treat sepsis?

If your healthcare provider diagnoses sepsis, treatment needs to start right away. Early diagnosis and treatment are the keys to survival. You may need to be treated in an intensive care unit of a hospital. Treatment may include intravenous fluids and antibiotics, medication to keep your blood pressure up, breathing support, and kidney dialysis

Treatment may take a physical and emotional toll on you. Some people suffer from post-sepsis syndrome. That's similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of post-sepsis syndrome include sleep disturbances, aches and pains, extreme fatigue, confusion, and loss of mental sharpness. Treatment and rehabilitation from post-sepsis syndrome may include emotional support, psychological therapy, and physical therapy.

Was this helpful?
  1. Sepsis Questions and Answers. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  2. Sepsis Awareness Month: Fewer than Half of Americans Have Heard of this Devastating Illness. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  3. Sepsis Defined. Sepsis Alliance.
  4. Sepsis Symptoms. Sepsis Alliance.
  5. Post Sepsis Syndrome. Sepsis Alliance.
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Sep 16
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