What is septicemia?

Septicemia, or sepsis, is the clinical name for blood poisoning by bacteria. It is the body's most extreme response to an infection. Sepsis that progresses to septic shock has a death rate as high as 50%, depending on the type of organism involved. Sepsis is a medical emergency and needs urgent medical treatment. Without treatment, sepsis can quickly lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death.

What causes sepsis?

These infections are most often associated with sepsis:

  • Lung infections (pneumonia)

  • Urinary tract infections

  • Skin infections

  • Infections in the intestines or gut

These 3 germs most frequently develop into sepsis are:

  • Staphylococcus aureus (staph)

  • Escherichia coli (E. coli)

  • Some types of Streptococcus

Who is at risk for sepsis?

An infection can happen to anyone, but there are certain risk factors that put people at higher risk for developing sepsis. These include people with:

  • Chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, cancer, lung disease, immune system disorders, and kidney disease

  • Weak immune systems

  • Community-acquired pneumonia

  • A previous hospitalization (especially hospitalization for an infection)

Also at risk are:

  • Children younger than 1 year of age

  • Adults age 65 and older

What are the symptoms of sepsis?

The following are the most common symptoms of sepsis. However, each person may experience symptoms differently.

People with sepsis often develop a hemorrhagic rash—a cluster of tiny blood spots that look like pinpricks in the skin. If untreated, these gradually get bigger and begin to look like fresh bruises. These bruises then join together to form larger areas of purple skin damage and discoloration.

Sepsis develops very quickly. The person rapidly becomes very ill, and may:

  • Lose interest in food and surroundings

  • Become feverish

  • Have a high heart rate

  • Become nauseated

  • Vomit

  • Become sensitive to light

  • Complain of extreme pain or discomfort

  • Feel cold, with cool hands and feet

  • Become lethargic, anxious, confused, or agitated

  • Experience a coma and sometimes death

Those who become ill more slowly may also develop some of the signs of meningitis. The symptoms of sepsis may look like other conditions or medical problems. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is sepsis diagnosed?

The diagnose sepsis, your healthcare provider will look for a variety of physical finding such as low blood pressure, fever, increased heart rate, and increased breathing rate. Your provider will also do a variety of lab tests that check for signs of infection and organ damage. Since some sepsis symptoms (such as fever and trouble breathing) can often be seen in other conditions, sepsis can be hard to diagnose in its initial stages.

How is sepsis treated?

Specific treatment for sepsis will be determined by your healthcare provider based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the condition

  • Your tolerance for specific medicines, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the condition

  • Your opinion or preference

Sepsis is a life-threatening emergency that needs immediate medical attention. People with sepsis are hospitalized and treatment is started as quickly as possible. Treatment includes antibiotics, managing blood flow to organs, and treating the source of the infection. Many people need oxygen and IV (intravenous) fluids to help get blood flow and oxygen to the organs. Depending on the person, help with breathing with a ventilator or kidney dialysis may be needed. Surgery is sometimes used to remove tissue damaged by the infection.

How can I prevent sepsis?

One of the most important infection control behaviors is hand washing. You should wash hands with clean, running water for at least 20 seconds. Wash your hands:

  • Before eating

  • After using the toilet

  • Before and after caring for a sick person

  • Before, during, and after preparing food

  • Before and after cleaning a wound or cut

  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing

  • After touching an animal or handling pet food or pet treats

  • After changing diapers or cleaning up after a child who has used the toilet

  • After touching garbage

To help keep your immune system strong and prevent sepsis, also:

  • Keep cuts clean and covered until healed.

  • Manage chronic medical conditions such as diabetes.

  • Maintain a healthy weight.

  • Eat a healthy well-balanced diet.

  • Exercise.

  • Get recommended vaccinations on schedule.

  • When an infected area is not getting better or is getting worse, get medical care.

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