September is Sepsis Awareness Month, and while sepsis is one of the most common medical conditions, it is often unrecognized until it is too late to cure. Sepsis can happen to anyone, at any time.
People often refer to sepsis as “blood poisoning” but that term doesn’t accurately capture the true nature of the condition. Sepsis is actually caused by the body’s “revved-up” immune system used to fight infections that happen when germs enter a person’s body and multiply. Although sepsis can happen even with minor infections, it is most often associated with infections of the lungs (pneumonia), urinary tract (UTI), and abdomen (abscess) and those infections caused by Staphylococcus aureus (staph), Escherichia coli (E.coli), and some types of Streptococcus (strep).
Anyone can develop sepsis from an untreated infection. However, sepsis occurs most often in people aged 65 years or older or less than 1 year old, those with weakened immune systems, or people who have chronic medical conditions such as diabetes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found more than 90 percent of adults and 70 percent of children who developed sepsis had a health condition that may have put them at risk.
Sepsis is a serious illness that can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death, so it is important to recognize the signs and symptoms early on. There is no single sign or symptom of sepsis; rather, it is a combination of signs and symptoms that indicates that a patient may have sepsis. It is particularly important to watch for symptoms of sepsis following an illness or surgery. The symptoms are like that of any infection and can include diarrhea, vomiting, sore throat, shaking chills, fever, extreme pain or discomfort, clammy or sweaty skin, confusion or disorientation, shortness of breath, or fast heartbeat.
If someone suspects that they have sepsis or if something seems not quite right, they should seek medical attention immediately as sepsis is a medical emergency. It’s important to say, “I am concerned that I have sepsis.” A health care provider will do a physical exam and order tests to look for the signs of sepsis such as an increased body temperature, low blood pressure, rapid heart rate, and high white blood cell count. This will confirm the diagnosis and determine the severity of sepsis so that it can be treated appropriately.
Because a patient with sepsis can deteriorate rapidly and progress to septic shock, early, aggressive medical treatment is necessary. This may include antibiotics to treat the infection, oxygen and respiratory support, fluids and other IV medications to maintain blood pressure, and surgery depending on the cause of the sepsis. In advanced cases of sepsis and septic shock, patients may require the assistance of a breathing machine or kidney dialysis.
There are four steps everyone can take to help prevent sepsis:
- Get vaccinated against the flu, pneumonia, or any other infections, especially for those at risk or who have chronic illnesses that make them more susceptible to infections.
- Clean any wounds or scrapes that might get infected.
- Practice good hand hygiene by washing with soap and water or using antiseptic gels.
- Learn the signs and symptoms of sepsis.
While sepsis can cause long-term complications or be fatal, the good news is that with an increased awareness of this condition among medical professionals and the public, it is now being recognized and treated earlier, resulting in more people surviving sepsis today than just a few years ago.
Joseph M. Montella, MD, is the Chief Medical Officer at Cooper University Health Care.