Sepsis: Knowing the Early Signs Can Save Lives

September is Sepsis Awareness MonthSepsis affects more than a million Americans each year and leads to death for about a third of them.  Although sepsis is common and potentially deadly, a recent survey found that fewer than half of all Americans have ever even heard of the term ‘sepsis.’

Sepsis is a complication caused by the body’s overwhelming and life-threatening systemic response to a localized infection. It can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death. Often referred to as ‘blood poisoning’ by lay people, sepsis is difficult to diagnose because early symptoms can be confused with other conditions. It’s important to know that sepsis is a medical emergency.  Awareness of the signs of sepsis, seeking medical attention, and timely treatment can save a life.

Sepsis is not a selective illness. It can affect anyone, regardless of age, race, social class or economic status. While anyone can get sepsis, people with weakened immune systems, children, infants, and the elderly are most vulnerable. People with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, AIDS, cancer, and kidney or liver disease, are also at increased risk, as are those who have experienced a severe burn or physical trauma.

The best defense against sepsis is education, especially since more than half of all sepsis cases begin in the community. Being alert to the signs of sepsis is equally important when a patient is admitted to the hospital.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no single sign or symptom of sepsis. It is, rather, a combination of symptoms. Since sepsis is the result of an infection, symptoms can include infection signs (fever, shivering, diarrhea, vomiting, etc.), as well as any of these symptoms: extreme pain or discomfort; clammy or sweaty skin; confusion or disorientation; shortness of breath; and a high heart rate.

If sepsis is suspected, early treatment boosts your chances of survival. Sepsis treatment typically involves intravenous antibiotics and fluids and in some cases supportive care to maintain the body’s organs. People with sepsis and organ failure may require close monitoring and treatment in a hospital’s intensive care unit.

The most important thing to remember is that while sepsis is a potentially life threatening illness, it can be curable when detected and treated early.  Knowing the symptoms and seeking medical attention immediately is the key to better outcomes.

Related Content

“What is Sepsis?” Click here to watch video.

“The Turning Point: Surviving Sepsis” Click here to watch video.

R. Phillip Dellinger, MD, FCCM, FCCP
Professor , Chair and Chief, Department of Medicine
Director of the Cooper Adult Health Institute


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