Understanding Sepsis

Sepsis is a life-threatening problem that affects your organs. It can happen if you have a severe infection. It's most often caused by bacteria. It ranges in severity from sepsis to severe sepsis to septic shock. All of these are a medical emergency. They need to be treated right away.

What is sepsis?

Sepsis is when the body reacts to an infection with severe inflammation. It can be caused by bacteria, fungus, or a virus. Sepsis can cause many kinds of problems in the body. It can lead to severe low blood pressure (shock). It can cause organ failure. This can lead to death if not treated.

Sepsis is most common in:

  • Adults 65 years and older

  • Patients in an intensive care unit (ICU)

  • People who have a central venous line or urinary catheter

  • People with a blood infection (bacteremia), pneumonia, meningitis, or a urinary tract infection

  • People with some cancers, diabetes, or long-term kidney or liver disease

  • People with immune system diseases such as HIV or AIDS

  • People who had an organ transplant or bone marrow or stem cell transplant

  • People taking medicines that affect the immune system

  • People being treated with chemotherapy, steroid medicines, or radiation

  • People with severe injuries, including burns

Symptoms of sepsis

Symptoms of sepsis can include:

  • Chills and shaking

  • High fever

  • Low blood pressure

  • Fast heartbeat

  • Fast breathing

  • Shortness of breath

  • Severe nausea or uncontrolled vomiting

  • Confusion

  • No able to be awake or aware (coma)

  • Dizziness

  • Less urination

  • Severe pain, including in the back or joints 

Diagnosing sepsis

If your healthcare provider thinks you may have sepsis, you will be admitted to the hospital. You will have tests. You may have blood and urine tests. You may have cultures and other tests to look for the cause of the sepsis. These tests look for bacteria, viruses, and fungus. Other tests may check for problems with your organs. You may have X-rays or other imaging tests. These may be done to look at your organs to find the source of infection.

Treating sepsis

All forms of sepsis are a medical emergency. They must be treated in the hospital, often in the intensive care unit (ICU). If you have sepsis, your healthcare provider will give you antibiotics through a thin, flexible tube (IV). This is put into a vein in your arm or other area in your body. You will be given a large amount of fluids through the IV. You may be given nutrition or medicines through your IV.

Your healthcare provider will talk with you about other treatments you may need. These may include an oxygen mask or a ventilator to help you breathe. This may include medicine that raises your blood pressure. You might need dialysis for kidney failure. Treatment may last at least 7 to 10 days. Even with a lot of treatment, sepsis can lead to death.

Online Medical Reviewer: Barry Zingman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Louise Cunningham RN BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2021
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