CDC: Think Sepsis, Act Fast


Sepsis is a serious, life-threatening condition caused by an immune response to infection. The condition is difficult to diagnose and treat, according to the CDC, and can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death. Sepsis cases in the U.S. nearly doubled from 2000 to 2010, and the condition is fatal in up to 30 percent of cases.

While some patients develop sepsis while in the hospital—usually associated with a bacterial infection such as pneumonia or appendicitis—a new report from the CDC indicates that 80 percent of cases develop outside of the hospital. In 70 percent of cases, sepsis develops in a patient who recently visited his or her health care provider, and/or has a chronic medical condition.

Infections most commonly associated with sepsis include those of the respiratory tract, skin, digestive tract, and urinary tract. In hospitalized patients, the condition often begins with an infection that originates around an IV or surgical wound or drain, or in an area where the skin has broken down—bed sores, for example. A sepsis diagnosis is based on a combination of laboratory tests, evidence of infection, and other criteria; however, there currently is no standard medical definition for the condition.

Adults over the age of 65 are three times more likely than younger patients to develop sepsis within three months of being discharged from the hospital, according to a study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine in May, 2015. Babies under the age of one year and people with a weakened immune system are also at increased risk for sepsis.

Estimates of sepsis-related mortality vary considerably, depending on the source of data used, a recent study suggests. For example, according to results of a study published in April, 2016 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, annual rates of sepsis-related mortality based on administrative claims was 15 to 140 percent higher than rates from death certificate data.  This report emphasizes the importance of developing a reliable method of diagnosing sepsis accurately.

The CDC is working to increase sepsis awareness among health care providers, caregivers, and patients. It’s vitally important to identify people who are at risk for sepsis and identify and treat the condition promptly to increase survival.

Preventive measures include making sure all immunizations are up to date, frequent hand washing, and cleaning open wounds properly.

Hospitalized patients and their family members or caregivers should ask health care providers to remove catheters and IV lines as soon as they are no longer needed and should report early symptoms of sepsis—fever, chills, confusion, rapid breathing and heart rate, decreased urination, pain, shortness of breath, and skin rash—promptly. Immediate treatment, which involves intravenous antibiotics and fluid, and medications to regulate blood pressure, can help improve outcomes.

Health care providers should make sure patients' immunizations are up to date—including flu and pneumococcal vaccines—closely follow infection control measures, and regularly screen at risk patients for sepsis. According to Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "When sepsis occurs, it should be treated as a medical emergency. Doctors and nurses can prevent sepsis and also the devastating effects of sepsis, and patients and families can watch for sepsis and ask, 'could this be sepsis'?"

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