How to Spot the Signs of Deadly Sepsis

Health Writer

How much do you know about sepsis? It's a medical emergency that affects more than 1.5 million people in the U.S. each year — almost twice the number of people who get a heart attack. It can affect anyone who has an infection — in their skin, lungs, urinary tract, or elsewhere — and kills nearly 1 in every 5 people who develop it. Delaying treatment by as little as a few hours can mean the difference between life and death.

These are alarming statistics, yet many people wouldn't be able to identify the signs and symptoms of sepsis if they — or a loved one — had them.

“For the general public, there's just generally low awareness of sepsis,” says Raymund Dantes, M.D., M.P.H., a medical adviser with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in a telephone interview with HealthCentral. “Most people have never heard the word 'sepsis' — or, if they have, they don't understand what it means.”

The CDC is aiming to change this with a new initiative called “Get Ahead of Sepsis,” which it launched in September to coincide with “Sepsis Awareness Month.” The initiative's website features fact sheets, brochures, infographics, digital and social media, and shareable videos designed to help spread awareness about this life-threatening illness.

Most cases of sepsis start outside of the hospital

So what exactly is sepsis? It is the body's extreme response to an infection. It happens when an illness you already have triggers a chain reaction throughout your body. Without prompt treatment, sepsis can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death.

An estimated 250,000 people die of sepsis each year in the U.S. — and even those who survive can be left with lasting problems, such as organ damage.

Contributing to the lack of awareness about sepsis is the common misconception that the illness mainly develops in hospitalized patients, said Dantes, who is also an assistant professor of medicine with Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

Although sepsis can result from an infection related to hospital care or treatment — for example, in a surgical wound or bed sore, or around an intravenous (IV) line — nearly 80 percent of cases start outside of the hospital.

“A lot of sepsis actually comes in through the emergency room,” Dantes says. “It comes into the hospital.”

Who’s at risk for sepsis

Although anyone can get sepsis, some people are particularly at risk, according to the CDC, including:

  • Adults age 65 or older
  • People with long-term (chronic) conditions, such as diabetes, lung disease, and kidney disease
  • People with weakened immune systems
  • Young children (under age 1).

Many different kinds of infections can cause sepsis, but the most common are lung infections (such as pneumonia), urinary tract infections (such as kidney infections), and infections involving the gut or skin, according to the CDC. The most frequently identified germs linked to sepsis include Staphylococcus aureus (staph), Escherichia coli (E. coli), and some types of Streptococcus (strep).

Signs of sepsis to watch out for

Although the symptoms of sepsis can vary depending on what the underlying infection is, the CDC recommends being particularly alert to the following signs and symptoms, as these suggest the infection is getting worse and sepsis may be developing:

  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Shortness of breath
  • A high heart rate
  • Fever, or shivering, or feeling very cold
  • Extreme pain or discomfort
  • Clammy or sweaty skin.

If you or someone close to you has any combination of these, you should seek emergency treatment. “The most important step to treating sepsis is identifying it as early as possible,” Dantes says. “Every hour counts.”

Besides knowing the signs and symptoms of sepsis, it is also important to know whether you, or a loved one, has a raised chance of developing the illness. You can ask your doctor about this. A CDC assessment of people diagnosed with sepsis found that more than 90 percent of adults and 70 percent of children with the illness may have had a health condition that put them at risk.

Sepsis prevention techniques

Finally, the CDC advises that getting ahead of sepsis also means taking steps to prevent infections and stay healthy, including:

  • Washing your hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
  • Keeping scrapes and wounds clean until they have healed
  • Making sure you're up to date on your immunizations, including vaccinations for the flu and pneumonia
  • If you have a chronic condition such as diabetes, making sure it's well-controlled.

And, if you do get an infection, be sure to seek medical care if it is not getting better, or if it is getting worse.

You should know: The answer above provides general health information that is not intended to replace medical advice or treatment recommendations from a qualified healthcare professional.

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