Septicemia, also known as sepsis, is a life-threatening complication that can happen when bacteria from another infection enter the blood and spread throughout the body.

It needs urgent hospital treatment, as it can quickly lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death.

It is more likely to affect older people, the very young, those with long-term illness and those who have recently undergone surgery. Skin, lung, urinary tract, and other infections can trigger it.

In the United States (U.S.), over 1.5 million people develop sepsis every year, and around 250,000 will die from it.

Some 80 percent of cases start outside the hospital, but 70 percent of people with sepsis have used hospital services within the last month or need regular medical care for a chronic condition.

Sepsis and septicemia are so similar in meaning that the term sepsis is most commonly used for both conditions.

Fast facts about septicemia

  • Sepsis, or septicemia, happens when an infection reaches the blood. It is a life-threatening emergency.
  • People who are most susceptible are the very young, older people, and those with a weakened immune system.
  • Symptoms include a high fever, faintness and dizziness, and changes in consciousness.
  • Without prompt treatment, septic shock can occur. This can be fatal.
  • Antibiotics can treat many cases of sepsis effectively, but they need to be delivered fast.
  • Recovery can take some time, and the person should get plenty of rest during this period.

Diagram of blood flowShare on Pinterest
Sepsis can happen when the blood reacts to an infection.

Sepsis, or septicemia, refers to an infection of the blood, and the body's reaction to this infection.

Normally, the bloodstream is free of microbes, but when bacteria get into it, this is called bacteremia.

If the bacteria multiply, the body reacts by releasing chemicals into the bloodstream. These chemicals cause an inflammatory response which can cause damage to the body's organs.

This is sepsis or septicemia, a response of the body to infection that can be life threatening. Treating sepsis at once with antibiotics can prevent septic shock from developing.

Anyone can get an infection, and any infection can lead to sepsis, but some risk factors make it more likely for certain groups of people.

These include:

  • having a weakened immune system, due for example, to conditions such as HIV or AIDS, cancer, and cancer therapy
  • chronic illness, such as diabetes, lung disease, and kidney disease
  • being aged under 1 year or over 65 years
  • recent surgery or a transplant
  • experiencing severe burns or other physical trauma

The infections that most commonly lead to sepsis are pneumonia, followed by urinary tract infections (UTIs), gastrointestinal (GI) infections, and skin or soft tissue infections.

Early signs of sepsis include:

  • fever, shivering, or feeling cold
  • fast heart rate
  • fast breathing and shortness of breath
  • sweaty or clammy skin
  • changes in mental state, such as feeling sleepy, confused, or losing interest

If medical attention is not accessed at once, septic shock may occur.

Symptoms of septic shock include:

  • feeling dizzy or faint
  • being confused or losing alertness
  • unusual mental changes, including a feeling of doom or a fear of death
  • slurred speech
  • diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting
  • severe muscle pain and extreme overall discomfort
  • difficulty breathing
  • passing very little urine
  • cold, clammy, and pale or mottled skin
  • cold and pale or unusually warm extremities
  • loss of consciousness

When getting medical help for possible sepsis, it is important to mention any recent infection, surgery, or immune system problems.

This will alert doctors to the possibility of sepsis for the quickest possible treatment.

Emergency treatment involves giving antibiotics and fluids and protecting the organs by supporting vital functions, such as breathing.

Share on Pinterest
Life support measures will help prevent further damage to the internal organs.

The doctor will:

  • give antibiotics to cover the most likely bacterial infection
  • do a test to find out which infection is involved
  • quickly change the drugs if test results demand it

If doctors suspect a specific source is causing the infection, they will try to remove it. This can involve removing infected tissue, draining an abscess, or taking away possibly infected foreign materials, such as catheters.

Life support measures include:

  • oxygen, with machine-assisted breathing if needed
  • intravenous fluids that go directly into the bloodstream

These measures will aim to protect the patient's body from further damage by keeping the organs working and stopping the blood pressure from falling.

As sepsis is often life-threatening, doctors will begin treatment before looking for the precise cause.

In 2012, international guidelines recommended that the patient should receive resuscitation within 6 hours of recognizing the condition, and that antibiotic treatment should begin before blood test results are ready.

Imaging tests and blood tests can be used to find the source, type, and cause of infection, as well as the stage of sepsis and the extent of organ damage.

Bacteria that are commonly found in sepsis cases are Staphylococcus aureus (Staphylococcus aureus), Escherichia coli (E. Coli), and various species of Streptococcus, Enterococcus, and Klebsiella, but there are many others that can also cause sepsis.

Sepsis is often preventable, and steps against infection are particularly important for people who are at risk.

These include:

  • vaccination against infections, such as the flu and pneumonia
  • practicing good hygiene, including regular hand-washing and bathing, and keeping any cuts and scrapes clean
  • being aware of the risk and the signs and symptoms of sepsis

Anyone who has an infection needs to be alert to the symptoms above and call for help at once if they appear.

Sepsis is a severe complication of infection. Further complications depend on the extent of any organ damage. This will depend on the overall health of the individual, and how quickly they get treatment.

Many people who recover from severe sepsis recover without long-term problems, but some people may have lifelong organ damage.

This is more likely for those with a long-standing condition, such as kidney disease. Damage to the kidneys may be so severe that dialysis is needed.

In some cases, the person's immune system is affected. This may increase their likelihood of having future infections.

It can take some time to recover from sepsis, and some people will not fully recover their previous health. The recovery process will start in the hospital and continue at home.

Patients are advised to take things slowly and get plenty of rest.

They will continue to experience:

  • weakness and tiredness
  • breathlessness
  • general body pain
  • difficulty moving
  • difficulty sleeping
  • loss of appetite and weight
  • brittle nails, hair loss, and dry, itchy skin

The person may also feel confused, anxious, and depressed. They may be irritable and frustrated, and they may have flashbacks.

Eating a balanced diet, exercising where possible, talking to friends and family, and resting can all help with the recovery process.

Severe sepsis and septic shock used to be fatal for almost everyone, but modern intensive care has improved the outlook.

Between 15 and 30 percent of people treated for sepsis die of the condition, but 30 years ago, it was fatal in 80 percent of cases. It remains the main cause of death from infection.

Long-term effects include sleeping difficulties, pain, problems with thinking, and problems with organs such as the lungs or kidneys.

Getting quick treatment at the earliest signs of sepsis is important to increase the chances of survival and a better quality of life after recovery.