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What is sepsis?

Jan 31, 2019

Here are five things to know about this potentially deadly condition

We know a heart attack and stroke are serious medical emergencies. Although it may not be talked about as much, sepsis is another medical emergency that should be taken seriously.

Healthcare professionals continue to learn more and more about sepsis. Once thought to be a blood infection or blood poisoning, we now know it’s the body’s extreme inflammatory response to an infection.

Brandon Walsh“Sepsis is a medical emergency and should be treated as such,” says Brandon Walsh, BSN, RN, CEN, St. Joseph’s/Candler emergency department clinical orientation coordinator. “Just as you wouldn’t wait seven days to treat a heart attack, you wouldn’t want to wait to treat sepsis.”

Here are five things everyone should know about sepsis:

1. What is sepsis?

Sepsis is the body’s overwhelming and life-threatening inflammatory response to an infection, Walsh explains. Sepsis happens when an infection you already have, whether in your skin, lungs, urinary tract or somewhere else, triggers a chain reaction throughout your body. Without timely treatment, sepsis can lead to tissue damage, organ failure and even death.

In fact, more than 1.5 million people get sepsis each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of that, at least 250,000 people die from sepsis.

2. So who can get sepsis?

Anyone, Walsh says, because any of us are at risk of getting an infection. “If you have an infection, it’s not necessarily that you are going to get sepsis,” Walsh adds. “But if it continues to grow and get worse, there’s an increased chance there will be a septic response.”

Certain populations are at higher risk of getting sepsis including the elderly, very young, people with chronic medical conditions and people with weakened immune systems, Walsh says.

3. What causes sepsis?

Simply put, when germs get into a person’s body, they can cause an infection, such as pneumonia, cellulitis or urinary tract infection. If that infection isn’t treated appropriately, it can progress and cause a septic response.  

4. What are the signs and symptoms of sepsis?

As mentioned, it begins with an infection. If that infection has advanced to sepsis, symptoms may include one or a combination of the following:

  • New onset of confusion or disorientation
  • Shortness of breath
  • High heart rate
  • Fever or shivering, or feeling very cold
  • Extreme pain or discomfort
  • Clammy or sweaty skin

If you experience any of these symptoms, especially if you know you have an infection of some type, you should go to the emergency room to be examined for sepsis.

In the emergency departments at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Candler Hospital, nurses are trained to look for HAT – Hypotension (low blood pressure), Acute onset of altered mental status and Tachypnea (rapid breathing).

“These are all indicators that the patient is most likely septic,” Walsh says. “We teach our nurses to look for these signs so they can identify them and bring it to the physician’s attention to treat in a timely manner.”

5. How can I prevent sepsis?

While it’s not always possible, there are steps you can take to try to prevent acquiring an infection. Be sure to have annual wellness checks with your primary care physician, take all prescribed medications, especially if you have a chronic condition, and get all recommended vaccines.

“When you have an infection and the physician diagnosis it as such, take the antibiotics and take them as prescribed, even if you start to feel better,” Walsh says.

It’s also important to practice good hygiene, such as washing your hands and keeping cuts cleaned and covered until fully healed.

And finally, if you suspect your infection is not getting better, seek medical care immediately.

“Again, anybody of any age, race and background can potentially become a septic patient,” Walsh says. “It’s very much a medical emergency like heart attacks and strokes.”

How can we help you?