Every month of the year celebrates awareness of a health disorder or healthy behavior, and September is the national month for a ton of things. One of the September celebrations is Sepsis Awareness Month. I thought we could all use a little more awareness about this potentially fatal condition.
For example, did you know that sepsis is the third leading cause of death in the United States, and the leading cause of death in US hospitals. There are more than one million Americans diagnosed with sepsis every year. And more than 250,000 people die from sepsis every year in the US.
Sepsis is a serious medical condition that occurs when the body’s immune system has an overwhelming response to an infection. In the case of any infection – bacterial, viral, fungal or parasitic – the immune system releases chemicals to fight the invading germ. The result is inflammation at the site of the infection. Inflammation is the damage caused by the fight between your immune system and the infection.
With sepsis, the germ-fighting chemicals cause inflammation throughout the body, which impairs blood flow. This undermines blood getting to the body’s organs and tissues, depriving them of oxygen and nutrients, and leading to organ damage. This whole-body reaction to infection spread through the bloodstream is sepsis.
Anybody can end up with sepsis, but some people are at greater risk for developing it. These include very young babies, seniors, people with chronic illnesses such as diabetes and AIDS, people with compromised immune systems such as those receiving treatment for cancer or following organ transplantation, and people in hospitals at risk for infections from IV lines, catheters, surgical wounds or bedsores.
There are three stages of sepsis: sepsis, severe sepsis and septic shock. Symptoms of sepsis include a body temperature above 101 degrees F or below 96.8 degrees F, a heart rate higher than 90 beats per minute, a breathing rate higher than 20 breaths per minute, and a probable or confirmed infection.
When your organs begin to fail, you’re headed for severe sepsis. Common symptoms of severe sepsis include decreased urination, changes in mental ability, chills, weakness, problems breathing, abnormal heart function, low blood platelet count and unconsciousness.
Add very low blood pressure to the symptoms of severe sepsis and you’ve got septic shock. That’s when there’s not enough blood pressure to keep your organs and tissues infused with blood and they fail. The organs most likely to fail include the lungs, the heart and blood vessels, the kidneys, and the brain and nerves.
Sepsis should be treated as a medical emergency as quickly and efficiently as possible as soon as it has been diagnosed. The first lines of treatment are IV antibiotics and IV fluids. The antibiotics given initially are broad-spectrum that kill a variety of bacteria. When the specific germ is identified, the medication can be adjusted to target the specific germ.
IV fluids are given to help keep the blood pressure from dropping dangerously low and throwing you into septic shock. The fluids also help the organs and tissues do their work, and they may help reduce organ damage from sepsis.
There are other treatments that may be used to support your functioning during your hospitalization. These might include kidney dialysis to help filter waste from your blood and mechanical ventilation to help you breathe if you’ve gone into septic shock. You may also be given corticosteroids to help reduce inflammation or vasopressors to tighten blood vessels and force the blood pressure to increase.
The outlook for people with sepsis depends on their age, health history, overall health status, how quickly the sepsis was diagnosed and the type of germ that caused the infection. Most people recover from mild cases of sepsis, but septic shock has a mortality rate of nearly 50 percent.
Your best bet is to seek treatment as soon as you start noticing symptoms so your doctors can begin treatment right away. Early and aggressive medical attention can help prevent sepsis from progressing to severe sepsis and then septic shock, and give you the best opportunity for a positive outcome.