What is sepsis?
- Sepsis is an illness that affects all parts of the body; it occurs in response to an infection and can become life-threatening.
- If not treated quickly, organ failure can occur, leading to septic shock, low blood pressure, and eventually, death. Sepsis is a general term that covers all types of infectious processes that can lead to the above symptoms.
- Many types of bacteria, viruses, and occasionally, fungi and parasites may cause sepsis; for the purpose of this article, the term pathogens will be used to include all of the above-mentioned organisms.
- Pathogens that cause sepsis usually first cause localized infections such as pneumonia, kidney infections, abdominal infections, sexually transmitted diseases, or septicemia (blood stream infections) that eventually may result in sepsis.
- The term sepsis is frequently preceded by other terms (for example, MRSA, neonatal, meningococcal, or neutropenic, for example); these terms usually indicate a sepsis subtype that may describe the infecting organism, like "MRSA sepsis" or a condition found in a subtype, like "neutropenic sepsis."
Is sepsis contagious?
Sepsis itself is not contagious, but the pathogens that cause sepsis are usually contagious. What this means is that the pathogens that may cause sepsis can be transferred, usually from person to person, directly or indirectly (by contaminated items like utensils or clothing). If the pathogens are transferred, the person may or may not develop sepsis; consequently, most septic individuals, while capable of transferring pathogens the cause infection, will not necessarily transfer the condition of sepsis. The pathogens that cause sepsis may remain viable for a while after the death of a person; these pathogens are contagious although sepsis is not.
How will I know if someone has sepsis?
Sepsis is sometimes difficult to diagnose because it shares symptoms from other conditions. However, if a person has any of the following symptoms that are common to individuals with sepsis, he/she or his/her guardians need to contact a physician urgently. If the symptoms are more severe, he or she should go to an emergency department:
There are new definitions of sepsis. A person who meets at least two of the following criteria, plus has confirmed or suspected infection according to the systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS) meets the definition for sepsis:
- Elevated heart rate greater than 90
- Body temperature either high (greater than 100.4 F) or low (less than 98.6 F)
- Respiratory rate of greater than 20 breaths per minute or a reduced partial pressure of carbon dioxide (PaCO2) in arterial blood
- Abnormal white blood cell count (WBC) greater than 12,000 or less than 4,000 cells/ul or 10% bands (immature white blood cells)
Consequently, a physician usually determines if a person is septic by physical exam and blood tests; people who are septic require hospitalization and immediate treatment.
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Risk factors that lead to sepsis can be reduced by many methods. Perhaps the most important way to reduce the chance for sepsis is to first prevent any infections. Vaccines, good hygiene, hand washing, and avoiding sources of infection are excellent preventive methods.
How does sepsis spread?
As stated previously, sepsis is not spread from person to person, although the pathogens that can cause sepsis may be spread among people, both directly and indirectly. However, sepsis spreads within a person's body, usually from a site of infection that is somewhat localized to one organ (for example, pneumonia in the lungs or a wound infection in the leg). When the localized infection is severe, the pathogen may reach the bloodstream, and when this happens, the pathogen spreads to other organs; in addition, some of the pathogens may quickly multiply in the blood. When these situations arise, the person's infection has spread internally, and the person is considered to be septic.
When will I know I am cured of sepsis?
Individuals can be cured of sepsis usually by being hospitalized and treated with IV antimicrobial medications that are effective against the organisms causing the infection. Surgical drainage or removal of the source may also be needed. Depending upon the exact cause of the infection, the duration that the person has been septic, and the severity of involvement of organs, recovery can be relatively quick, lengthy, or if treatment begins late in the septic process, organ damage and/or death may occur.
Sepsis is a serious condition; even patients with no signs of organ failure with a timely diagnosis have a 15%-30% chance of death; those patients with severe sepsis and shock have a death rate of about 40%-60%.
When should I contact a health care provider about sepsis?
The best time to contact a health care provider about sepsis is before it occurs. This may sound impossible, but in reality, it is easy to do. If a person has any signs of increasing difficulties or severe symptoms of any infectious disease (for example, pneumonia, meningitis, wound infections, or organ infections, such as kidney infections), he or she should contact a physician or go to an emergency department quickly. Appropriate treatment of infections can reduce the chance of developing sepsis. Alternatively, if a person develops signs and symptoms of SIRS listed above, they should immediately go to an emergency department.
The key to preventing poor outcomes (organ damage, death) of sepsis is early and appropriate diagnosis and treatment of the infecting pathogen.
Medically Reviewed on 7/24/2018
United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Sepsis." July 13, 2018. <http://www.cdc.gov/sepsis/basic/>.