Sepsis is a medical emergency. It can lead to organ failure and death. The earlier a person receives treatment, the more likely they are to survive.

Sepsis occurs when the immune system has an extreme reaction to an infection and begins to damage healthy tissues and organs, resulting in widespread inflammation throughout the body.

Sepsis can progress to septic shock, the most severe sepsis complication. Septic shock is a significant and sudden drop in blood pressure that can damage several organs, such as the lungs, liver, and kidneys. Severe damage to these organs can be life threatening.

This article discusses how long it can take for sepsis to be fatal. It examines the signs and causes of sepsis and how doctors diagnose and treat it. It also discusses the outlook for people with sepsis.

ambulanceShare on Pinterest
LeoPatrizi/Getty Images

Many people with mild sepsis survive with treatment.

There is no specific time frame between the start of sepsis and the chance of death. The severity of sepsis and its outcomes depend on many factors, including:

  • the nature of the infection
  • the inflammatory response it causes
  • how quickly a person receives treatment

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 1.7 million adults develop sepsis each year in the United States. Of these individuals, approximately 350,000 of them die in the hospital or enter hospice care.

Early treatment increases a person’s chances of survival. The national nonprofit Sepsis Alliance says that for each hour there is a delay in treatment, the risk of sepsis progressing to septic shock and causing death rises by 4–9%.

Learn more about sepsis.

Sepsis can affect many systems in the body and cause a variety of symptoms.

Common signs and symptoms of sepsis may include:

  • a change in mental status, such as feeling confused, disorientated, or agitated
  • a fast heart rate or weak pulse
  • difficulty breathing or breathing rapidly
  • fever, shivering, or feeling extremely cold
  • clammy or sweaty skin
  • low energy or weakness
  • extreme pain or discomfort
  • symptoms specific to the infection type, such as a cough that gets progressively worse from pneumonia or an urge to urinate from a urinary tract infection (UTI)

If sepsis progresses to septic shock, it can increase the risk of death. Signs and symptoms of septic shock may include:

Symptoms of sepsis and septic shock vary from person to person. Symptoms may present differently among children and adults.

Important signs to look out for:

  • acting confused or disorientated
  • feeling cold, clammy, or sweaty
  • a fast heart rate
  • shivering
  • weakness
  • pain or discomfort
Was this helpful?

Learn more about septic shock.

If someone thinks that they or someone in their care has symptoms of sepsis or septic shock, they should get immediate medical help.

If a person has any infection or wound that is worsening or not healing, they should seek advice from a healthcare professional. Any infection could lead to sepsis.

Sepsis is a severe complication of an infection, including bacterial, viral, or fungal infections.

The following infections more commonly cause sepsis:

Bacteria that enter the skin through catheter sites, wounds, or burns can also cause infections that could lead to sepsis.

Most people who develop sepsis have an underlying health condition. According to the CDC, one-quarter to one-third of individuals with sepsis visited a healthcare professional during the week before their hospitalization.

Sepsis requires immediate treatment to increase the likelihood of recovery. Healthcare professionals typically monitor and treat people with sepsis in an intensive care unit (ICU).

People with sepsis may receive the following treatment:

  • Antibiotics: If healthcare professionals suspect sepsis, they administer antibiotics as soon as possible. They typically use broad-spectrum antibiotics that are effective against several types of bacteria. Healthcare professionals may switch to a different kind once blood tests indicate the specific bacteria causing the infection.
  • Intravenous (IV) fluids: Healthcare professionals direct fluids through veins to help maintain blood pressure and blood flow to the organs.
  • Vasopressor medications: They may use vasopressors to constrict or narrow blood vessels, which helps the body reach adequate blood pressure.
  • Supportive care: If a person’s organs begin to fail, healthcare professionals begin supportive care, such as mechanical ventilation for respiratory failure or dialysis for kidney failure.
  • Surgery: A person may need surgery to remove infected or damaged tissues.

Doctors may also use other medications, such as pain relievers or insulin, to control a person’s blood sugar levels.

Healthcare professionals diagnose sepsis in the following ways:

  • Physical examination: Healthcare professionals check whether a person has low blood pressure, difficulty breathing, or consciousness issues.
  • Blood tests: They take blood samples to test for infection, abnormal kidney or liver function, or problems with blood clotting. They also check blood oxygen and electrolyte levels.
  • Other lab tests: Healthcare professionals may take urine samples, saliva and mucus from the respiratory tract, or liquid from a wound to locate the source of the infection.
  • Imaging tests: They may order imaging tests, such as an X-ray, ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI, to help them determine the site of infection.

People can take preventive steps to reduce their risk of sepsis, such as:

  • practicing good hygiene, including regularly washing hands
  • covering cuts or wounds until healed to keep them clean
  • keeping up to date with recommended vaccinations to prevent some infections
  • managing chronic conditions, such as diabetes, lung disease, or kidney disease
  • contacting a healthcare professional for advice if they suspect they have an infection

The outlook for people with sepsis can be good when they receive an early diagnosis and prompt treatment.

A person’s chances of recovering from septic shock depend on the type of infection, the severity of organ damage, and how quickly they receive treatment.

Sepsis is a severe complication of an infection. It is more likely to occur in people with existing health conditions.

The course of sepsis depends on several factors, such as the type of infection and how soon a person receives treatment.

There is no specific timeline from when a person develops sepsis to dying. However, without treatment, sepsis can progress to septic shock, which could be fatal.

People are more likely to survive if they begin treatment as soon as possible after diagnosis. Treatment typically includes antibiotics, IV fluids, vasopressor medications, and supportive care.

People can lower their chances of developing sepsis by managing existing chronic conditions and speaking with a doctor if they suspect they have an infection.

People can also maintain proper hygiene measures, keep wounds and cuts clean, and stay up to date with vaccinations.