Cancer and heart disease make the headlines nearly every day, and rightfully so – they are leading causes of illness and death in the U.S. But a condition that results in up to half of all hospital deaths rarely sees print. That condition is sepsis, and according to the National Institutes of Health it strikes more than a million Americans each year.
Sepsis, also called septicemia, doesn’t happen by itself. Instead, it results from an infection such as pneumonia, appendicitis or a urinary tract infection. In each case, sepsis starts because the body overreacts to the infection.
The overreaction starts with the normal immune response to infection. Your body releases chemicals into your blood to fight the virus, bacteria or fungus that is causing the problem. But with sepsis, these chemicals trigger an overwhelming inflammatory response throughout your body. This causes a cascade of events, including blood clots, leaky vessels and drops in blood pressure, that can cause one or more organs to fail. If sepsis progresses to its most serious stage – septic shock – the mortality is nearly 50 percent.
Anyone can develop sepsis. But according to Dr. Nicole Finke, medical director of the Community Medical Center laboratory, this condition is more dangerous and more common among people who:
- Are very old or very young.
- Have a weakened immune system (such as patients on chemotherapy).
- Have catheters, breathing tubes or other devices in their bodies.
- These people can progress quickly through the stages of sepsis – from mild to severe to septic shock.
Because the symptoms can be subtle, everyone who comes to the emergency department at Community Medical Center is screened for signs and symptoms including fever, elevated heart rate and low blood pressure. Those who fit the criteria for sepsis get immediate care and are moved to the ICU, where they can be closely monitored. Care for sepsis includes antibiotics, intravenous fluids, oxygen and medicines to stabilize blood pressure and support the immune system.
While sepsis often occurs in hospitalized patients, it can also start at home. Finke describes a typical scenario in which someone who seems to be recovering from an infection suddenly gets worse.
“People who are elderly or have suppressed immune systems can go from the first sign of infection to septic shock in as little as 24 hours,” she says.
People with symptoms of sepsis should see their doctor or go to the emergency room right away.
“If sepsis is recognized and treated early, morbidity and mortality can be significantly decreased,” Finke says.
You should suspect sepsis in someone with an infection who:
- Seems disoriented or forgetful.
- Feels faint or falls down.
- Has a fever.
- Feels that his or her heart is pounding.
- Breathes at a faster-than-normal rate.
Sepsis is on the rise in the U.S., in part because more people are living to be very old. There are also more people with weakened immune systems from cancer treatments, treatments for autoimmune disorders, HIV and medicines used to prevent rejection of transplanted organs. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which often cause the infections that trigger sepsis, also continue to increase.
The only way to lower your risks for getting sepsis is to decrease your risk of infection, and to take appropriate steps if you get one. You can keep germs at bay by washing your hands frequently and getting vaccinated against the flu, pneumonia and other vaccine-preventable diseases. If your doctor prescribes antibiotics for an infection, be sure to take the entire course of treatment.
September is Sepsis Awareness Month. You can learn more about this condition by visiting the Sepsis Alliance at sepsis.org.