What is your body doing?
You’re sick, and it doesn’t seem too bad at first, but suddenly, it seems that your body isn’t fighting the infection as well as it usually does. What is going on? Why isn’t your body doing its job of fighting off the illness? Should you go to the doctor?
Sepsis is a complication that can occur when your body fights any infection (bacterial, viral, or fungal). When your body is fighting an infection, it releases chemicals in your bloodstream to be able to do this. Sometimes, this release of chemicals causes an inflammatory response throughout your body that causes a cascade of changes that damage multiple organ systems, leading to them failing.
It occurs in three stages: sepsis, severe sepsis, and septic shock. To be diagnosed with sepsis, you have to have a probable or confirmed infection with at least two of the following: temperature >101°F or <98.6°F, heart rate > 90, and respiratory rate > 20. Severe sepsis is when you have the symptoms above and signs of organ failure, such as significantly decreased urine output, sudden mental status changes, difficulty breathing, abdominal pain, abnormal heart pumping function, and reduced platelet count. Septic shock is when you have signs of severe sepsis and exceptionally low blood pressure that doesn’t respond to simple fluid replacement.
The number of complications increase as the severity of sepsis gets worse. Blood flow to vital organs (brain, heart, and kidneys) becomes impaired, resulting in blood clots forming anywhere in your body, including organs, arms, legs, fingers, and toes, leading to organ failure and tissue death.
It’s vital to start treating sepsis while it is in the early stage and be aggressive with treatment. Typically, treatment involves getting blood cultures and starting broad-spectrum antibiotics right away since these treat many kinds of bacteria. The cultures can take a few days to see what type of organism is causing the infection, and waiting to start antibiotics until the results come in would be too late for most people. Once the culture results are back, your doctor will switch you to a more specific antibiotic designed to treat the particular organism causing the infection. During this waiting process, you will also be given large amounts of intravenous (IV) fluids to help replace the fluid your body is losing as it fights the infection. Your doctor will also be looking for the source of the illness to treat it.
If sepsis proceeds to the more severe stages, you’ll need oxygen therapy to help you breathe. Typically, this requires being on a ventilator. To help with low blood pressure, you’ll need medicine called a vasopressor. This help constricts blood vessels which causes your blood pressure to increase.
Most people can recover from mild sepsis, but only about 50% of people recover from septic shock. Also, once you have an episode of severe sepsis, you are at higher risk of getting sepsis again with future infections. Unfortunately, the number of people affected by sepsis is on the rise. This is due to our aging population, an increase in the number of drug-resistant bacteria, and more people living with weakened immune systems from cancer, HIV, or transplant drugs.
The key to preventing sepsis is to take care of yourself when you have an infection by drinking plenty of fluids (water), resting, and taking the appropriate over-the-counter medications for your symptoms. If you are not getting any better after several days, you should seek treatment from your doctor. Suppose you or a loved one is sick and experiences sudden confusion/drowsiness/dizziness, inability to walk, difficulty breathing, increased heart rate, and/or decreased temperature. In that case, you should go to the hospital immediately, as this is a sign that sepsis is starting and needs immediate treatment. This is critical in preventing sepsis from reaching its severe stages.
Sepsis is nothing to mess around with and requires prompt treatment to decrease the chance of it being fatal. If you have any questions about sepsis, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the Center for Disease Control’s sepsis page at https://www.cdc.gov/sepsis/basic/index.html