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What is sepsis?

Sepsis happens when an infection spreads and causes your body to react strongly to germs. Your body's defense system normally releases chemicals to fight off infection at the infected area. When infection spreads, chemicals are released throughout your body. The chemicals cause inflammation and clotting in small blood vessels that is difficult to control. Inflammation and clotting decrease blood flow and oxygen to your organs. This may cause your organs to stop working correctly. Sepsis is a life-threatening emergency.

What increases my risk for sepsis?

  • An infection anywhere in your body, especially your blood or urinary tract
  • Treatment in a hospital for a serious illness, or having an implanted catheter
  • Age older than 65
  • Chronic conditions such as COPD, heart failure, or diabetes
  • A condition that causes a weak immune system, such as cancer, HIV, or kidney disease
  • A medicine that causes a weak immune system
  • A recent surgery
  • Severe injuries, such as large burns

What are the signs and symptoms of sepsis?

Seek care immediately for any of the following:

  • Fever or very low body temperature
  • Severe pain
  • Chills or severe shaking
  • Cold, pale, or clammy skin
  • Extreme weakness
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath, or fast breathing
  • Confusion, loss of consciousness, or a seizure
  • Urinating very little or not at all

How is sepsis diagnosed?

  • Measurement of your vital signs may show an abnormal temperature, heart rate, or blood pressure.
  • Blood and urine tests will show infection, organ function, and give information about your overall health. They may also show what germ is causing your infection.
  • An x-ray, ultrasound, CT, or MRI may show where in your body the infection came from. You may be given contrast liquid to help the infection show up better in the pictures. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to any type of contrast liquid. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.

How is sepsis treated?

Several treatments may be needed if sepsis causes one or more organs to stop working correctly. Treatments are often started in the emergency room and continued in an intensive care or critical care unit of a hospital. You may need any of the following:

  • Medicines will be given to treat the infection. Medicines may be given to increase your blood pressure and blood flow to your organs. Medicines may also be given to control your blood sugar level, or to prevent stomach ulcers, or blood clots.
  • Oxygen may be needed if your blood oxygen level is lower than it should be.
  • A ventilator is a machine that gives you oxygen and breathes for you when you cannot breathe well on your own. An endotracheal (ET) tube is put into your mouth or nose and attached to the ventilator.
  • A blood transfusion may be needed if bleeding occurs or platelet levels drop. This can happen in severe sepsis.
  • Removal or change of a catheter or drain may be needed to get rid of the infection.
  • Dialysis may be needed if your kidneys stop working correctly or are damaged during sepsis. Dialysis is a procedure to remove chemicals, wastes, and extra fluid from your blood.
  • Surgery or other procedures may be needed to treat problems causing sepsis. This may include draining an abscess or removing infected tissue.

What can I do to prevent sepsis?

  • Ask your healthcare provider about vaccines. Vaccines can help prevent some infections that may lead to sepsis. Get a flu vaccine every year.
  • Care for wounds and incisions as directed. Keep wounds and incisions clean and dry. Change your bandages when they get wet or dirty. Tell your healthcare provider immediately if you have signs of a wound infection. Signs include redness, warmth, swelling, or pus.
  • Care for your drain or IV catheter as directed. Ask your healthcare provider how to care for your tube or IV catheter. Correct care of these devices can help prevent infection.
  • Wash your hands frequently. This can help decrease your risk for infections. Wash your hands before you eat or prepare a meal. Also wash your hands after you use the bathroom. Use soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

Learn more about Sepsis

Associated drugs

IBM Watson Micromedex

Mayo Clinic Reference Guides (External)