What is Sepsis?

Sepsis is a life threatening medical condition that arises when the body’s attempt to fight an infection results in the immune system damaging tissues and organs.

Sepsis is your body’s overreaction to an infection. Your immune system, which is supposed to protect you and fight off invaders like bacteria and viruses, becomes overwhelmed by the infectious organism. This immune response damages your blood vessels and your body’s ability to control bleeding. Sepsis causes body-wide inflammation, disrupts blood flow, and shuts down vital organs like the heart. Every year, over 258,000 people in the United States die from sepsis and many more are left disabled.

How Can I Tell If I Have Sepsis?

The signs and symptoms of sepsis can be subtle and they can mimic other illnesses, so it might not easy to tell right away if you or a loved one has sepsis. In fact, you and your doctors might need to do a bit of detective work to figure out what is happening.

The most common signs and symptoms of sepsis include:

  • Change in body temperature: You may a fever (above 101 Fahrenheit) or your body temperature may be lower than normal (lower than 98.6 F).Chills and shivering
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Rapid breathing
  • Confusion and drowsiness
  • Pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling of doom, that something terrible is happening

But Aren’t Those Signs and Symptoms of Many Illnesses?

This is why sepsis can be difficult to detect, even though it seems like the information is right in front of you. Many people who start showing signs and symptoms of sepsis brush off their illness, believing they have a bad case of the flu (influenza) or a stomach bug they picked up at work. They might think, “If I just get a good night’s sleep, I’ll feel better when I wake up.”

So how do you tell the difference between those scenarios and sepsis?

  • Did you cut or scrape yourself recently?
  • Have you been bitten or stung by an animal or bug recently?
  • Have you had surgery recently?
  • Have you had any type of invasive procedure recently (such as a catheter procedure, tattoo, or piercing)
  • Have you had any signs of infection, such as urinary tract infection, coughing with pain, pain in your abdomen, an abscess in your mouth, or even an ingrown toenail?
  • Have you been ill with the flu or a childhood illness like chickenpox?

These are all examples of infections that may trigger sepsis. If you have had any infections and you experience any of the signs of sepsis listed above, seek help immediately and say, “I am concerned about sepsis.” Tell the triage nurse, emergency services technician (paramedic), or emergency room doctor about any possible infections you may have or procedures you had, to help them understand why you may be feeling as sick as you do.

Does There Have to Be an Infection for Sepsis to Develop?

Sometimes, someone is diagnosed with sepsis but the doctors don’t know what caused it. By working backwards — going over your recent history — you and your doctor may be able to figure out what type of infection you had.

Sepsis is a serious illness that can quickly develop into septic shock without rapid treatment. Advocating for yourself and your loved ones increases the chances that sepsis is diagnosed early. Knowing the signs and symptoms of sepsis can help save your or someone else’s life.

By Marijke Vroomen Durning, RN

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