Each year, it kills more than 258,000 Americans, but until recently it’s likely you may not have even heard of sepsis or known what it was.
In recent months, sepsis has topped national headlines surrounding the deaths of both Muhammad Ali and Patty Duke. Shortly after his death, it was discovered that Ali died from septic shock tied to a respiratory infection, and in the case of Patty Duke in March, her sepsis stemmed from a ruptured intestine.
What is sepsis?
Sepsis is a response to infection – whether bacterial, viral or fungal – and it can start anywhere in the body and spreads into the bloodstream. Basically the body is trying so hard to fight infection it begins releasing chemicals into the bloodstream that cause inflammation and the shutdown of multiple organ systems.
“It carries a very poor prognosis in general, unless you catch and treat it very early,” says Christina Szot, M.D., Renown Medical Group – Pulmonary Medicine. “Any infection can lead to sepsis. Typically your immune system takes care of the infection and it doesn’t progress, but in cases where the infection gets very severe, people can certainly die and there’s a very high mortality rate associated with sepsis.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year more than 1 million cases of sepsis are recorded in the United States and it is the ninth-leading cause of disease-related deaths claiming 258,000 nationally. While you can recover from sepsis if caught early, some survivors may require amputation or be left with permanent organ damage.
What are the signs of sepsis?
One way to spot sepsis is to use the acronym SEPSIS:
- S – Shivering, fever or feeling very cold
- E – Extreme pain or discomfort
- P – Pale or discolored skin
- S – Sleepy, difficult to wake up or confused
- I – “I feel like I might die”
- S – Shortness of breath
Keep in mind, sepsis symptoms can vary depending on where the infection starts. “Patients may experience urinary burning if they have a urinary tract infection or a cough and shortness of breath if they have pneumonia first,” says Dr. Szot. “However, often symptoms are more generalized such as fevers, confusion and malaise.”
Who is most at risk?
People with compromised immune systems are at greater risk for sepsis, such as “The very young, the very elderly and any people who may have conditions that suppress your immune system,” says Dr. Szot. “For instance, if you have diabetes or if you’re an organ transplant patient who is on immunosuppressant therapy, you’re at somewhat higher risk.”
Sepsis is often considered a hospital-acquired infection, but a study in The Journal of American Medical Association actually found the majority of cases are first discovered in the emergency room – meaning they were acquired outside the hospital.
That’s why it’s especially important to remember any infection can lead to sepsis and anyone can develop sepsis from an infection.
What do I do?
Timing is critical in the case of sepsis and septic shock. According to a study on septic shock patients, there is a 7.6 percent decrease in survival for each hour treatment is delayed. On the other end, if treatment is given within an hour of the first drop in blood pressure, the survival rate is 80 percent.
Because sepsis can be so deadly, it’s important to seek medical attention as soon as possible. “If you’re not getting any better, if you think symptoms are progressively worsening – you should definitely be evaluated by a doctor,” says Dr. Szot.