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Sepsis

Sepsis is an emergency medical condition that can lead to death within hours without proper treatment. It occurs when the body has an extreme immunological reaction to an infection.

In time, this reaction can cause changes in heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature. It can also cause organ damage and shock.

A virus, bacteria, or fungus can trigger sepsis, and can be present anywhere on the body.

Call the UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases to learn more or make an appointment at 412-647-7228 or 1-877-788-7228.

What Is Sepsis?

Sepsis is a life-threatening extreme response to an infection you already have.

In the U.S., about 1.7 million people get sepsis each year.

It's a leading cause of death in hospitals each year in the U.S., claiming about 250,000 lives. Anywhere from one third to one half of people who die in the hospital have sepsis.

One reason for the high death toll is that it may take too long to know that someone has sepsis. And it spreads very quickly. By the time a person shows sepsis symptoms, they may have only hours or days left to live if left untreated.

Each hour that passes without receiving treatment for sepsis increases the likelihood a person will develop septic shock and die.

If healthcare staff realize that a person has sepsis early enough, they have a much better chance of saving the person's life.

Sepsis causes

Sepsis starts with an infection. The infection could begin with any kind of germ, but certain bacteria are more often the cause of sepsis than other germs.

Four types of infections more likely to lead to sepsis compared to other types of infections are:

  • Lung, such as pneumonia or COVID-19. A little more than one out of three people with sepsis had a lung infection.
  • UTIs including bladder and kidney infections. About one out of four people with sepsis had a UTI.
  • Skin including MRSA and other staph infections. About one in 10 people with sepsis had a skin infection.
  • Gut including appendicitis and infections in the gallbladder, liver, or bowels. About one in 10 people with sepsis had a gut infection.

Sepsis risk factors and complications

Some people have a greater risk than others of getting sepsis after an infection.

About 90% of adults and 70% of children who got sepsis had a condition that put them at greater risk for it.

People with a higher risk include those who:

  • Are 65 years old or older.
  • Are under one year old.
  • Have weakened immune systems.
  • Have had a recent severe illness or hospital stay.
  • Have chronic health problems such as diabetes, lung disease, cancer, or kidney disease.
  • Are pregnant.
  • Have survived sepsis in the past.

If a person doesn't receive a sepsis diagnosis early enough, they're much less likely to survive.

The best way to save someone from dying from sepsis is to notice the symptoms quickly and get them treatment right away.

How to prevent sepsis

The best way to prevent sepsis is to prevent getting an infection.

There are four major things you can do to reduce the risk of an infection:

  • Take care of chronic or other health conditions that need regular medication or other treatment.
  • Receive all the vaccines that the CDC says you should get, including the COVID-19 vaccine and boosters.
  • Follow good hygiene practices and wash your hands often.
  • Clean any cuts or wounds you have and cover them until they heal.

Sepsis Symptoms and Diagnosis

Sepsis symptoms look like common symptoms of many other illnesses.

But the six main symptoms of sepsis are:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Fever, chills, shivering, or feeling very cold.
  • High heart rate or low blood pressure.
  • Extreme pain or discomfort.
  • Sweaty or clammy skin.
  • Being confused or feeling a bit lost.

If you see someone with many or all of these symptoms, take them to the ER or call 911 right away. This is especially crucial if the person is high risk or has an infection

If you have some of these symptoms but are low risk and don't have a known infection, you should call your doctor.

Diagnosing sepsis

To diagnose sepsis, a healthcare provider must see you in person and will:

  • Ask about your symptoms and medical history.
  • Check your temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing.
  • Draw blood to test it for chemicals that reveal an infection or damage to the organs.
  • They may also order an x-ray, CT scan, or other imaging tests to look for a source of an infection.

Sepsis Treatment

UPMC's providers all have training in knowing the signs of sepsis and to act quickly to diagnose and treat it.

The goal of treating sepsis is to cure the infection causing it to help the immune system return to normal. Sepsis treatment will also try to stop organ damage from occurring.

Treating sepsis caused by bacteria

We may give you an IV with antibiotics to treat an infection caused by bacteria.

Some common side effects from antibiotics are:

  • Nausea.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Not feeling hungry.
  • Discomfort in your belly.
  • Rash.
  • Dizziness.
  • Yeast infections.

Some people have allergies to certain types of antibiotics or other medications. Make sure your doctor knows this so they can find treatments that are safe for you.

C. diff infection as a side effect of antibiotic use

One possible serious side effect of antibiotics is C. diff — a bacterial infection. It occurs because antibiotics can kill off 'good' bacteria in your body that normally protect it against C. diff.

The risk of C. diff is 7 to 10 times higher when taking antibiotics.

The most common symptom of C. diff is severe watery diarrhea at least three times a day.

Other common symptoms of C. diff are:

  • Severe diarrhea, up to 10 to 15 times a day.
  • Fever.
  • Stomach pain, cramping ,or tenderness.
  • Not feeling hungry.
  • Nausea.
  • Rapid or increased heart rate.
  • Blood or pus in the stool.

If you're taking antibiotics and have any of these symptoms, let a doctor or nurse know right away.

Antibiotics that most often cause C. diff:

  • Clindamycin.
  • Cephalosporins.
  • Penicillin.
  • Fluoroquinolones.

Treating sepsis caused by a virus

If the infection came from a virus or other germ, doctors will only give you anti-viral drugs that can fight that germ. Antibiotics don't help viral infections.

Side effects from anti-viral drugs vary by drug, but some common ones are:

  • An upset stomach.
  • Vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Dizziness.
  • Tiredness.
  • Feeling anxious.
  • A mild headache.

Ask the doctor about possible side effects of the anti-viral drug they give you.

Tell your doctor if you have severe effects, such as:

  • Trouble breathing.
  • New fever or chills.
  • Confusion.
  • Problems speaking.
  • A severe headache.
  • Shaking, trembling, or trouble moving.
  • Numbness or tingling in your arms, legs, fingers, or feet.

Treating sepsis complications

If someone with sepsis has trouble getting enough oxygen to all of their organs, doctors may give them:

  • IV fluids.
  • Medicine to increase their blood pressure.
  • An oxygen mask.

If advanced sepsis caused kidney damage, you may need dialysis to help do the kidneys' job.

Some people may also need a breathing tube or surgery to remove infected or damaged tissue.

Recovering from sepsis

It will take time to get better after sepsis.

Ways that can help you heal physically and emotionally are to:

  • Get rest.
  • Talk about how you feel with loved ones or a therapist.
  • Write in a journal about how you feel, what you think about, or what you can start doing again.
  • Learn about what happened and how you can prevent it in the future.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Slowly add more physical activity to your schedule, without building up too quickly.
  • Write down questions that you need to ask your doctor when you see them next.
  • Ask your family to tell you about what you can't remember.

Contact the UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases

To learn more about the UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases or to make an appointment, call 412-647-7228 or 1-877-788-7228.