Sepsis (Blood Poisoning)

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Bacterial Infections 101 Pictures Slideshow

What are the signs or symptoms of sepsis (blood poisoning)?

The adult patient should have a proven or suspected source of an infection (usually bacterial) and have at least two of the following problems: an elevated heart rate (tachycardia), either a high (fever) or low temperature (hypothermia), rapid breathing (>20 breaths per minute or a reduced PaCO2 level), or a white blood cell count that is either high, low, or composed of >10% band (immature) cells.

In most cases, it is fairly easy to ascertain heart rate (count pulse per minute), fever or hypothermia with a thermometer, and to count breaths per minute even at home. It may be more difficult to prove a source of infection, but if the person has symptoms of infection such as productive cough,dysuria, fevers, or a wound with pus, it is fairly easy to suspect that a person with an infection may have sepsis. However, determination of the white blood cell count and PaCO2 is usually done by a lab. In most cases, the definitive diagnosis of sepsis is made by a physician in conjunction with laboratory tests.

Elderly patients have similar symptoms to those stated for adults, but the first apparent symptoms are often confusion along with chills, weakness, possibly faster breathing, and a dusky skin appearance. Pediatric patients (infants, toddlers, and children) also may develop similar symptoms to those in adults, but the most common symptoms are fever and reduced urine output. Children may show signs of lethargy and decreased age-appropriate mental status. Neonatal sepsis (sepsis neonatorum) is suspected in neonates up to 28 days old if the rectal temperature is 100.4 F or higher. Other signs and symptoms for neonatal sepsis include fever in the mother at time of delivery, cloudy or smelly amniotic fluid, abnormal vital signs, seizures, and projectile vomiting.

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Some authors consider red lines or red streaks on the skin to be signs of sepsis. However, these streaks are due to local inflammatory changes in either local blood vessels or lymphatic vessels (lymphangitis). The red streaks or lines are worrisome as they usually indicate a spreading infection that can result in sepsis.

Septic shock is a condition in which overwhelming infection causes a dangerous drop in systolic blood pressure (hypotension). Additional symptoms that may accompany the low blood pressure may include cool and pale extremities, dizziness or lightheadedness, low or absent urine output, shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, behavioral changes, and low or high body temperature. Continue Reading

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/9/2015
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