Who Is Most at Risk for Sepsis?

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Sepsis is your body’s toxic reaction to an infection, any type of infection. For example, if you catch the flu or develop pneumonia, your body’s immune system works to fight the infection. Most times, it’s successful and although you probably felt very ill for a while, you recover and continue as you were before. Sometimes though, your bloodstream is overwhelmed with toxic substances released by the germs, which disrupts normal blood vessel function. Additionally, your immune system might overreact and, instead of fighting what caused the infection, it fights your body. This deadly combination is sepsis.

Who can get sepsis?

Since sepsis is triggered by any type of infection, anyone can get it whether they’re young, old, healthy or frail. But some people are at higher risk of developing sepsis than others. Those include people who:

  • Are very old or very young (elderly and infants)

  • Have a chronic illness, like diabetes

  • Have weakened immune systems, such as people who are taking corticosteroids or chemotherapy, or have no spleen

  • Have burns or open wounds

  • Have invasive devices, such as a central line or a urinary catheter

Why are some people at higher risk of developing sepsis?

Many people who fall into a high-risk category are there because their immune system is weakened. If you have an illness like diabetes or you take medications that affect your immune system, you’re at higher risk of developing infections—and the higher the chance of getting an infection, the higher the risk of developing sepsis. The very old often have chronic illnesses, again leading to increased risk of infection. As for the very young, babies who are premature may not have a fully functioning immune system and older babies haven’t yet had the chance to been fully vaccinated against childhood diseases.

Having an open wound or an opening caused by a medical device also puts you at risk, because there is now an unnatural opening in your body for bacteria and other organisms to enter, causing an infection.

What can I do to prevent sepsis?

Sepsis isn’t always preventable and infections may still happen from time to time no matter how careful you are. But you can reduce your risk of developing an infection by following some simple precautions:

  • Be up-to-date on vaccinations, from childhood illnesses to pneumonia.

  • Practice good hand hygiene. Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly.

  • Treat infections seriously. See your healthcare provider if you believe you have an infection.

  • Take all antimicrobial medications exactly as prescribed, and be sure to complete the full course of treatment.

  • If you have an infection that does not seem to be getting better, go back to your healthcare provider for more treatment.

What should I know about antibiotic resistance?

Bacteria are living organisms and they change (mutate) to avoid being killed by antibiotics. Doctors are starting to see more and more cases of bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics, and researchers are racing to develop new, more powerful ones. As a society, we can slow down the rate of antibiotic resistance by following a few simple rules:

  • Finish your prescription of antibiotics, even if you feel better and you think the infection has gone away.

  • Follow the prescription as ordered. Don’t skip doses.

  • Follow the warning labels. Certain antibiotics won’t work as well if they’re taken with food, others without food. Some can’t be mixed with certain foods, like dairy.  

  • Don’t take someone else’s antibiotics, even if you’re sure you know what your infection is and how to treat it.

  • Don’t insist that your doctor or nurse practitioner give you an antibiotic prescription for an illness that isn’t caused by bacteria, like the flu or a bad cold. Antibiotics have no effect on non-bacterial illnesses.

 

Being sick is never fun, and sometimes it’s easy to try to tough out an illness, but when it comes to infections, you shouldn’t take chances. By being proactive and vigilant, you can reduce your risk of developing infections and sepsis.

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