What Is the Difference Between Sepsis and Septic Shock?

What are sepsis and septic shock?

Sepsis and septic shock represent different stages of the same medical condition, so the symptoms can be similar.
Sepsis and septic shock represent different stages of the same medical condition, so the symptoms can be similar.

When bacteria get into your blood, they can cause an infection that becomes life-threatening. The organisms can enter the body through different access points. People can suffer from sepsis and septic shock without ever realizing they had an infection.

The two conditions are closely related. Learning to recognize each illness's symptoms can give you clarity about the kind of treatment you need. You can also learn to prevent infection by understanding the conditions that could lead to the formation of sepsis and septic shock.

What is sepsis?

Sepsis is an extreme response by your body when it senses an infection. When it feels threatened, the body releases chemicals from your immune system designed to fight the invader. Bacteria is the most common cause of sepsis, but it can be triggered by other types of infections.

Most infections that lead to sepsis occur in the stomach, lungs, bladder, or kidneys. Sepsis can start with a small cut that gets infected. You can also develop sepsis after having an invasive surgery that allows bacteria to enter the body.

What is septic shock?

Septic shock is a type of sepsis that causes your body’s blood pressure to drop to dangerous levels. This can prevent your internal organs from getting enough blood and cause them to stop functioning properly. Without immediate treatment, people can die from septic shock.

Symptoms of sepsis and septic shock

Since sepsis and septic shock represent different stages of the same medical condition, the symptoms can be similar. People who have gone into septic shock may show more serious symptoms.

Symptoms of sepsis

Some common signs that you may have sepsis include:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Seeming confused and disoriented
  • Having a hard time breathing
  • Feeling extreme pain or discomfort
  • Fever
  • Shivering
  • Feeling cold
  • Clammy or sweaty skin

You should seek medical attention immediately if you suspect you have sepsis.

Symptoms of septic shock

People in a state of septic shock may exhibit symptoms like:


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Causes of sepsis and septic shock

Sepsis is caused by infections from organisms that find a way into the body. In some cases, sepsis can develop into septic shock.

Causes of sepsis

Sepsis is not an infection. It is a complication that results from an infection already inside your body. You can develop sepsis from a tooth infection or a virus that gets into your body, like the flu.

Sepsis begins when an infection makes its way into your bloodstream. People who have a higher risk of developing sepsis include:

  • Adults who are 65 and older
  • People with compromised immune systems
  • Children who are one year old and younger
  • Pregnant women
  • People managing chronic illnesses like lung disease, diabetes, or cancer

Causes of septic shock

Bacteria, fungi, and other organisms that infect the body can trigger septic shock. They release toxins that damage surrounding tissues. That leads to a drop in blood pressure and a potential shutdown of body organs. The formation of blood clots in small arteries may contribute to decreased blood flow, leading to septic shock.

You may be more at risk of developing septic shock if you have any of the following risk factors:

  • A weakened immune system because of an illness like AIDS
  • Diabetes
  • Cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver
  • Have had a catheter or breathing tube placed in your body for an extended period
  • Use antibiotics long-term
  • Have had an infection recently
  • Are currently using or have recently been prescribed steroids
  • Very young or old age

Diagnosis of sepsis and septic shock

The first thing most physicians do when diagnosing sepsis assess your current symptoms, including checking your temperature and blood pressure. They’ll also look for signs like problems breathing or an unusual heart rhythm.

Doctors might suspect sepsis if you have previously been diagnosed with an infection. They may also order blood tests to look for signs of an infection.

When it comes to septic shock, doctors first rule out other potential causes of your condition like myocardial infarction, or a heart attack. They do that by examining your medical history and looking for other indicators of heart problems.

Doctors also look for signs of organ failure so they can prevent any further damage from occurring.

Treatments of sepsis and septic shock

Treatment for sepsis typically consists of:

  • Antibiotics
  • Intravenous fluids
  • Vasopressors, medication that increases blood pressure

Most people with septic shock end up in the intensive care unit (ICU). They are often provided with a variety of treatments depending on the severity of their condition, including:

  • Breathing machines
  • Kidney dialysis
  • Medications to raise your blood pressure
  • Antibiotics to treat the infection
  • Administering fluids through an IV
  • Providing oxygen
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Sepsis."

Mayo Clinic: "Sepsis."

Medscape: "Septic Shock Treatment & Management."

Merck Manual: "Introduction to Bacteremia, Sepsis, and Septic Shock."

Merck Manual: "Sepsis and Septic Shock."

National Institute of Health: "Sepsis."

NHS Inform: "Septic shock."

Sepsis Alliance: "Symptoms."

Sepsis Alliance: "What Is Sepsis? What It Is and What It Isn't."