What Is Sepsis? Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention

Medically Reviewed

Everyone may develop an infection at some point in life. But while many infections are cleared up by our immune system or with help from medication, others can progress to a life-threatening complication known as sepsis, notes the NHS. (1)

When you’re sick, your immune system signals the release of chemicals that increase inflammation and help stop the spread of viruses, bacteria, or fungi. In the case of sepsis, the immune system’s inflammatory response to an infection is dysregulated. This causes widespread, dangerous inflammation throughout the body that can lead to poor blood flow and blood clots, says to the Mayo Clinic. (2)

Sepsis can also lead to organ failure and death. According to an article published in December 2019 in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, organs that are more likely to fail, either individually or together (called multi-organ failure), in a severe sepsis state include: (3)

  • Lungs
  • Kidneys
  • Liver
  • Heart
  • Brain
  • Blood system

Sepsis can progress quickly, so it’s vital to spot signs of this condition and get medical help. You can’t treat sepsis at home. It requires treatment in an intensive care unit (ICU), per the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. (4)

Signs and Symptoms of Sepsis

If you have any of the following symptoms, you may have sepsis, in mild to severe forms as the difference between sepsis and more severe forms called septic shock are not easily detected without physician evaluation: (4)

  • High fever (greater than 101 degrees F) or low body temperature (below 96.8 degrees F)
  • Fast breathing (in general greater than 22 breaths per minute, depends on the individual)
  • Heart rate more than 90 beats per minute (bpm)
  • Change in mental status; confusion or disorientation
  • Low blood pressure
  • Chills or shivering
  • Clammy or sweaty skin

If you’re fighting an infection and notice these symptoms, don’t delay in getting medical attention. Go to the emergency room or call 911. You should also see a doctor if you have these symptoms without a known infection.

Possible Warning Signs of Sepsis in Small Children

Identifying sepsis in children can be difficult when they’re too young to express how they feel.

Signs of sepsis in newborns and infants can include any of the above symptoms, as well as these symptoms, per KidsHealth: (5)

  • Changes in skin color, such as blue or pale skin
  • Jaundice
  • Bulging soft spot on head
  • Pauses in breathing
  • Lethargy

Sepsis in children also starts with an infection. Seek immediate medical attention if your child develops any of these symptoms while he or she is fighting an infection.

Learn More About Signs and Symptoms of Sepsis

Common Questions & Answers

What is the most common cause of sepsis?

Bacterial infections are the most common cause of sepsis. These infections can originate anywhere in the body. Sepsis develops as the result of widespread inflammation. Some fungal, viral, and parasitic infections can cause sepsis, too.

What are the three stages of sepsis?

The three stages of sepsis are sepsis, severe sepsis, and septic shock. Signs include a high fever, higher heart rate, and a higher breathing rate. With severe sepsis, organ failure can occur along with breathing problems, unconsciousness, and abnormal heart function. Sepsis can also cause a dangerously low blood pressure, known as septic shock.

How do you get a sepsis infection?

Sepsis is a complication of an infection. An infection may develop in your urinary tract, lungs, or elsewhere in your body. If left untreated, the infection can enter the bloodstream. This can trigger sepsis, which is an extreme response to an infection.

What are the early warning signs of sepsis?

Sepsis is life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention. Early signs of sepsis include confusion or disorientation, high heart rate, fever, and shortness of breath.

What is the typical prognosis for sepsis?

Fortunately, most people recover from mild sepsis. However, septic shock has a mortality rate of about 40 percent. Also, individuals with a history of severe sepsis are at greater risk for a future infection.

Causes and Risk Factors of Sepsis

Any type of infection in the body can cause this serious medical complication. But some infections are more commonly linked to sepsis than others. These include: (4)

Similarly, certain germs can lead to infections that later develop into sepsis. These include: (2)

Even though sepsis can happen to anyone, some people have a higher risk, such as adults age 65 and older and children younger than 1 year old. (2)

Premature babies are also at risk for sepsis because of their weakened immune system. (5) Babies in the neonatal intensive care unit are hooked up to IVs, catheters, and other tubes. Sometimes, bacteria on the skin surface can seep into openings connecting these tubes. (2)

Having a chronic illness may also put you at a higher risk for sepsis because you are immunocompromised. (2)

An open wound, injury, or skin burn can also increase the likelihood of sepsis. (2)

Learn More About Causes of Sepsis: Risk Factors and More

How Is Sepsis Diagnosed?

Because there’s no single test to diagnose sepsis, confirming this medical condition is difficult, notes the Sepsis Alliance. (6) But with the help of blood tests and other laboratory tests, doctors can usually diagnose sepsis based on symptoms and test results.

“Doctors look for sepsis in patients who have complaints that may be caused by an infection, such as a cough, a fever, burning during urination, an elevated heart rate, faster than normal breathing, confusion, lethargy, and mottled skin,” says Kimberly Brown, MD, MPH, an ER doctor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, Tennessee.

To help diagnose sepsis, your doctor will take your temperature to confirm a fever. You’ll also have your blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate monitored. (4)

Blood testing is also common to look for signs of an infection and to examine your organ function. Laboratory tests conducted in the hospital may include a urine test to check for a urinary tract infection. You may also have a respiratory secretion test to identify the specific germ causing an infection. And if you have an open wound, your doctor may test secretions from the wound to determine the most appropriate antibiotic, according to the Mayo Clinic. (7)

If your doctor believes that an infection originated in your gut, a computerized tomography (CT) scanultrasound, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is used to take pictures of the inside of your body. These tests can look for abscesses or infections in your stomach, gallbladder, or ovaries.

Sepsis Prognosis

While sepsis is life-threatening, life after sepsis is possible. There are more than 1.4 million sepsis survivors every year in the United States, per the Sepsis Alliance. (8) But some survivors have post-sepsis challenges.

For example, about 60 percent of survivors experience long-term decline in cognitive and physical function. In addition, about one-third of sepsis survivors return to the hospital within three months because of another infection or a repeated case of sepsis. (8)

During the weeks or months following your recovery, you may also experience body aches, weight loss, difficulty sleeping, hair loss, brittle nailsdepression, and poor concentration, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (9)

Sepsis Duration

The duration of sepsis varies from person to person. Hospital treatment is often necessary, and depending on the severity, some people might remain in the hospital for several weeks, notes the NHS. (10) Doctors administer antibiotics upon diagnosis, which are given in the hospital or if discharged taken orally, all total for about 7 to 10 days or longer for more severe cases or multiple infections, per the NHS. (11)

Even in the case of mild sepsis, it takes times to recover and rebuild strength. Some people develop post-sepsis syndrome, characterized by feeling weak and tired for several weeks or months after completing treatment. (10)

Sepsis Treatment and Medication Options

Treatment for sepsis is based on the source and severity of the infection. The goal of treatment is to stop the infection and protect organs from failing. Per the Sepsis Alliance, treatment may include: (12)

  • Antibiotics A broad-spectrum antibiotic is capable of treating several types of bacteria. You’ll receive this medication intravenously so it can get into your bloodstream faster.
  • Intravenous (IV) fluids Treatment with intravenous fluids help prevent low blood pressure and promotes blood flow to your organs. Adequate blood flow can prevent organ damage and organ failure. You may receive normal saline containing sodium, or colloids that help increase blood fluid volume.

Other treatments for sepsis include, not limited to: (12)

Sometimes, surgery is necessary to address an infection for example, a large abscess or infected limb.

Learn More About Treatment for Sepsis: Medication, Alternative and Complementary Therapies, Surgery Options and More

Prevention of Sepsis

Sepsis is preventable, whether it’s a first-time case or a recurrence. One of the best ways to protect yourself is being proactive if you have signs of infection.

“Prevention is best done by seeking medical treatment early for evaluation of a suspected infection,” warns Dr. Brown. “The more rapidly an infection is treated, the less likely it can become sepsis."

Along with quick action, the Sepsis Alliances says to take the following measures to prevent infections: (13)

Practice good hygiene. Get into a routine of washing your hands frequently throughout the day, especially before meals or before preparing food. Make a conscious effort not to touch your mouth, nose, or eyes with your hands. Also, avoid people who are sick. Teach your children the proper way to wash their hands to lower their risk of infection. Thorough hand-washing takes at least 10 to 15 seconds. (13)

Get annual vaccinations. Talk to your doctor about vaccinations to help prevent infections. These include an annual flu shot, as well as vaccinations to prevent chicken pox, tetanus, and pneumonia.

Take antibiotics as directed. If you develop an infection and you’re prescribed an antibiotic, antiviral, or antifungal, take your medication as directed and complete the full course. Don’t stop your medication just because you feel better.

Take proper care of wounds. Many cuts, scrapes, and minor burns can be treated at home. But it’s important that you clean wounds with water to remove dirt and germs, and then apply antibiotic cream. Keep the wound covered with gauze until it heals. Also, learn how to recognize signs of a skin infection. Symptoms include skin redness, skin that’s warm to the touch, discharge from a wound, and worsening pain. Seek medical attention if you suspect a skin infection.

Learn More About How to Help Prevent Sepsis

Complications of Sepsis

Your condition can worsen when sepsis isn’t diagnosed fast enough.

“If sepsis isn’t treated, it can develop into septic shock, which leads to a drop in blood pressure and eventually death, so it should be treated as soon as possible,” says Rebecca Lee, RN, the founder of the natural health resource Remedies For Me, who is based in New York City. “The faster treatment is started, the better the outcome."

Symptoms of septic shock include the symptoms of sepsis, as well as these following conditions. Although sepsis and septic shock can present in a variety of ways, the NHS says these are commonly seen: (14)

In addition to these, low blood pressure caused by septic shock can prevent blood flow to your organs. Inadequate blood flow can then lead to organ failure and tissue death. (14)

Death of soft tissue from a bacterial infection is known as gangrene. Symptoms of tissue death include numbness, severe pain, and skin discoloration. Gangrene affects the extremities and could result in amputation of a limb.

When septic shock causes permanent damage to kidneys or lungs, you may also develop respiratory problems or require dialysis. Since septic shock can also impair your immune system, you’re also at risk for another infection. (4)

Learn More About the Complications of Sepsis: How It Affects Your Body in the Short and Long Term

Research and Statistics: How Common Is Sepsis?

If you’ve never heard of sepsis, you may think this is an extremely rare condition. But sepsis is more common than some people realize.

“It is estimated that about one million people are hospitalized annually in the United States for sepsis, and it is included in the top 10 diseases that lead to death," says Lee, and an article published in July 2017 in St. Louis Magazine concurs. (15)

Among those hospitalized with sepsis, as many as 270,000 Americans die each year, notes the CDC. (16) In addition, about 1 in 3 people who die in the hospital has sepsis. (16) The number of sepsis cases has risen in recent years. Experts haven't pinpointed the exact cause for this, but certain factors may contribute to the increase. (4)

One belief is that doctors have become more aware of sepsis, resulting in more medical professionals tracking these cases than before.

The fact that people are living longer may also play a role in the increased number of sepsis incidents. This is because the risk for chronic diseases rises with age, and sepsis is more likely to occur in those with a chronic disease. (5) Currently, the average life expectancy in the United States is 78.6 years, according to the CDC. (17)

Antibiotic resistance may also influence the prevalence of sepsis. This occurs when bacteria adapt and resist antibiotics commonly used to treat bacterial infections. As a result, antibiotics become less effective in treating infectious diseases. And when antibiotics don’t work, infections can spread and lead to sepsis. (2)

Related Conditions and Causes of Sepsis

In addition to the aforementioned infections, germs, and skin burns, having certain chronic conditions could put you at a higher risk for sepsis.

Chronic illnesses that have a greater risk of sepsis include: (4)

Resources We Love

Favorite Orgs for Essential Sepsis Info

Sepsis Alliance

The mission of the Sepsis Alliance is to save lives and increase sepsis awareness. Whether you’re looking to learn the basics about sepsis or explore treatment options, this is an excellent go-to resource for answers.

The UK Sepsis Trust

Spotting early symptoms of sepsis, whether in yourself or your child, can improve your prognosis. The Sepsis Trust provides a wealth of information to recognize signs early, plus other resources to build awareness. There’s an FAQ page on sepsis, inspiring patient stories (so you know you’re not alone), and links to other helpful websites.

Cleveland Clinic

Here, you'll find information about causes, risk factors, prevention, and treatment options for sepsis. The Cleveland Clinic also offers a “live chat” feature where you can speak with a representative, as well as other helpful resources to increase your knowledge.

Surviving Sepsis Campaign (SSC)

The SSC strives to reduce sepsis mortality and improve the outcome for those living with post-sepsis syndrome. The website includes resources for adult and pediatric patients, sepsis screening tools, and you’ll also find a resource library.

Favorite Online Support Networks

Sepsis Alliance — Faces of Sepsis

If you're a sepsis survivor (or you have a family member who survived sepsis), you might enjoy connecting with those who understand this road to recovery. The Faces of Sepsis is an excellent place to read survivor stories — the good and the bad. You can read the personal accounts of others and share your own story.

World Sepsis Day — Personal Stories

This page allows sepsis survivors and those who’ve lost loved ones to share their personal stories with the world. Gain strength and encouragement from their life story, or share you own.

Favorite Site for Sepsis Products

Sepsis Alliance — Shop

Bring awareness to sepsis with your own merchandise. The Sepsis Alliance offers a wide variety of items: survivor ribbons, stickers, wristbands, tote bags, pens, and more.

Favorite Resource for Becoming an Advocate

Sepsis Alliance Voices

Want to get involved and do more? This is an excellent place to start. Learn how you can take action by encouraging your local or state government to help increase awareness of sepsis.

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

  1. Symptoms Sepsis. NHS. July 18, 2019.
  2. Sepsis. Mayo Clinic. November 16, 2018.
  3. Caraballo C, Jaimes F. Organ Dysfunction in Sepsis: An Ominous Trajectory From Infection to Death. Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. December 2019.
  4. Sepsis. National Institute of General Medical Sciences. January 29, 2018.
  5. Sepsis. KidsHealth. August 2018.
  6. Testing for Sepsis. Sepsis Alliance. 2020.
  7. Sepsis: Diagnosis. Mayo Clinic. November 16, 2018.
  8. Sepsis Alliance Launches Sepsis Survivor Week. Sepsis Alliance. February 12, 2019.
  9. Life After Sepsis Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2018.
  10. Treatment and Recovery Sepsis. NHS. July 18, 2019.
  11. Sepsis. NHS Inform. February 13. 2020.
  12. Treatment. Sepsis Alliance. 2020.
  13. Sepsis and Prevention. Sepsis Alliance. November 20, 2019.
  14. Septic Shock. NHS Inform. February 10, 2020.
  15. Cooperman J. Sepsis Is the 10th Leading Cause of Death in the U.S. St Louis Magazine. July 20, 2017.
  16. Clinical Information. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. August 19, 2020.
  17. Life Expectancy. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. March 3, 2017.
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