Sepsis: Causes, Risk Factors, Symptoms, and Treatments
Commonly asked questions about sepsis:
- What is it?
- What causes it?
- What risk factors are associated with it?
- What are the signs/symptoms of it?
- How is it treated?
- How can it be prevented?
What is Sepsis?
Sepsis is a potentially life-threatening complication of an infection. It occurs when the body attempts to fight off an infection by releasing chemicals into the bloodstream, but the chemicals then cause inflammation throughout the body. This inflammation in turn can trigger blood clots and leaky blood vessels, which prevents the body’s organs from receiving the necessary nutrients and oxygen. This poor blood flow can cause tissue damage, organ failure, and even death. If sepsis progresses quickly or is left untreated, it can develop into severe sepsis and then into septic shock. Septic shock occurs when blood pressure drops drastically, which can be fatal. Even with early treatment, sepsis kills about one in five affected people.
What Causes Sepsis?
Sepsis can result from any type of infection to which the body has an overwhelming response. It is most often associated with infections of the lungs, urinary tract, skin, and abdomen. Common germs that can cause such infections include Staphylococcus aureus (staph), Escherichia coli (E. coli), and some types of Streptococcus (strep).
Sepsis has also been reported as a potential complication from the use of Bair Hugger warming blankets during invasive surgeries. Bair Hugger warming blankets work to prevent hypothermia in patients during surgery by forcing warm air through the blanket. If the air being pushed through the blanket contains contaminants from the operating room, bacteria is allowed to come into direct contact with open surgical sites. The bacteria can thus enter the body and cause infection, which can progress into sepsis. This complication occurs most often during surgical procedures to receive implants, such as knee or hip implants.
What Risk Factors are Associated with Sepsis?
Anyone can develop sepsis from an infection, but the risk is higher if the infection is left untreated or is not treated properly.
People with weakened immune systems are at a higher risk of developing an infection, and are therefore at a higher risk of developing sepsis. This includes:
- People with chronic illnesses
- People hospitalized for an illness
- People suffering from burns or other physical trauma
- Young children
- The elderly
People who have undergone invasive surgery to receive medical devices or implants are also at a higher risk.
What are the Signs/Symptoms of Sepsis?
Sepsis can be difficult to recognize because it has symptoms in common with many other conditions and illnesses. Recognition is critical, however, as it can progress rapidly.
In addition to signs of infection, patients may also exhibit:
- Clammy or sweaty skin
- Rapid breathing
- Rapid heart rate
If the condition progresses and becomes severe, patients may show these signs of eminent organ failure:
- Confusion or disorientation
- Extreme pain or discomfort
- Decreased urine output
- Decreased platelet count
- Difficulty breathing
- Abnormality in the heart pumping function
The presence of these symptoms plus a drastic drop in blood pressure indicates a patient may be experiencing septic shock.
How is Sepsis Treated?
It is common to experience a full recovery from sepsis, but, according to the Mayo Clinic, septic shock has a mortality rate of nearly 50 percent. It is vital to treat sepsis early and treat it aggressively in order to increase the chance of survival.
Doctors should administer antibiotics immediately to fight the infection. Vasopressors may also be prescribed to help increase blood pressure. Patients could be given additional medications such as corticosteroids, insulin, drugs to modify the immune system, painkillers, or sedatives.
People experiencing a severe condition often require supportive care including oxygen and intravenous (IV) fluids to maintain normal blood oxygen levels and blood pressure. Depending on the level of severity, some patients need a machine to assist with breathing or dialysis for kidney failure.
Surgery may also be necessary for a complete treatment. Sources of infection, such as abscesses, or tissue damaged by the infection may need to be surgically removed.
In the case of an infection contracted during a surgical implant procedure due to a medical device – such as the Bair hugger warming blanket – patients may require additional treatment. This additional treatment can include further surgeries, revision or removal of the implant, insertion of antibiotic spacers into the affected area, and even amputation.
While most patients have a complete recovery, it is possible to experience long-term effects. These lasting effects can include permanent organ damage, as well as cognitive difficulties with planning, organizing, and multitasking. It is important to note that even if a patient makes a full recovery, an episode of severe sepsis increases vulnerability to future infections.
How Can Sepsis be Prevented?
One way to prevent the contraction of sepsis is to prevent the contraction of infections. Getting vaccinations is one such preventative measure; specifically, for example, the flu and pneumonia vaccines. Infections can also be prevented by washing hands often, always cleaning scrapes and wounds effectively, and simply maintaining generally good hygiene.
Most crucially, if you have an infection, be aware of the symptoms of sepsis. If you suspect you are showing such symptoms, see a healthcare professional immediately. Time is essential for treatment. If you can recognize the onset early, the chances of survival and a full recovery increase tremendously.