More than 257,000 Americans are killed by sepsis each year. What is sepsis you may ask? Well, sepsis is our body’s response to any exacerbated, life-threatening infection. Prolonged sepsis can result in organ tissue damage and if not addressed, death.
If you have a persistent infection resulting in a fever of 101°F and an accelerated heart rate, you may have sepsis and should seek medical attention if you haven’t already. But how does one get sepsis in the first place? Here’s a list common causes and what to do if you have them. Knowing what to do when you notice them might just save your life.
A Common Ailment
Though it usually only kills the elderly or infirm, the flu can indeed be deadly. Extreme cases of the flu can result in potentially septic infections if left untreated. While there is a vaccine for the flu, there are no catch-all cures for the virus besides rest and recovery. If you experience worsening symptoms after a week, see a doctor.
What is Sepsis?
When an infection spreads and becomes too difficult for our body to fight off naturally, sepsis can occur. It may seem like a strange factoid, but sepsis is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. Surviving sepsis depends on knowing how to recognize it, and how to treat it.
Sepsis at its Core
The most basic definition of sepsis is a body-wide inflammatory response to infection. Sepsis spreads, injuring tissues and organs and if it is allowed to persist, can even result in death. Most of the harm caused by sepsis is often derived from the immune response of the disease rather than the actual infection itself.
Minor to Major
It’s important to remember that sepsis isn’t always the result of large-scale infections; it can come from something as minor as a cut, cavity, or ingrown toenail. If the invading bacteria are not killed off or if they make their way into the blood while strengthened, the resulting infection can spread to other parts of the body.
Got a Leak
Sepsis can also cause blood clots to form in the veins and arteries. This inhibits oxygen delivery and directly correlates to vital organ failure. The most severe sepsis causes a condition called systemic vasodilation, resulting in capillary permeability. Essentially, this means that fluid, blood in this case, can leak out of the blood vessels thereby causing septic shock.
Dead and Gone
It is when this happens, as organs fail and blood no longer stays where it’s supposed to, that forty percent of septic patients die. So how can we stop this; how can we tell the warning signs before our organs begun to fall like ninepins? Thankfully, there are a number of ways that we as patients can discern what’s happening inside us before heading to the hospital.
There are a number of warning signs. For example, if you possess a temperature greater than 100.4 °F or less than 96.8 °F, if your pulse is over 90 beats per minute, or if your white blood cell count is unusually elevated, you might have sepsis.
In addition to these vital signs, many people experiencing sepsis may actually look a lot better than they feel. They may even look pretty healthy. Tissue hypoxia, a condition in which the body or a region of the body is deprived of adequate oxygen supply, and organ failure aren’t always overt, even in severely septic people.
All of this seems to strike before hypotension and cryptic shock, both of which are obvious signs of near-fatal septic shock. It is usually once a patient has developed hypotension that they begin to look shocked. By then, it is often too late to do anything for them. It is therefore prudent for those experiencing unusual symptoms to seek medical help immediately.
The thing about sepsis is that it doesn’t discriminate. Sepsis doesn’t give a fig for age or degree of physical health. If an infection has taken root, it can run rampant regardless of how many Pilates classes you take each week. That being said, sepsis is most common in the elderly and in those with HIV, hepatitis, organ transplants, or on chemotherapy.
Healthy or Unhealthy
Just as it can affect the immunocompromised and the infirm, sepsis can also affect healthy children and young adults. Minor injuries and some common illnesses, ranging from appendicitis to the flu, can result in sepsis if improperly treated. People who have experienced these ailments should always follow-up with their doctor following treatment just in case.
This is more of a signal for doctors, but increased levels of lactic acid in the body might indicate that sepsis is forthcoming. In severe sepsis cases, lactic acid is released into the bloodstream and this slows the metabolism. You may feel this as a muscle ache or fatigue even after you feel you’ve recovered from an infection.
Many people experiencing the later stages of severe sepsis might actually begin to feel panicky. It’s similar to the way that those experiencing an imminent heart attack feel a sense of doom around them. It’ll feel like you’re having a panic attack, you’ll hyperventilate, sweat, and begin to feel dizzy.
Infections a’ Plenty
If you’re prone to infections, whether they be something as simple as athlete’s foot to as complicated as a kidney infection, you should always be wary of the possibility of sepsis. A good way to minimize the spread of infection is to fold more home remedies into your diet. Things like garlic, ginger, and apple cider vinegar are all products that fight off infection and bacteria. They won’t cure sepsis, but they’ll help.
Sepsis can also be caused by persistent infections like pneumonia, urinary tract infections, meningitis, ear infections, and recent surgery. There are millions of different types of harmful bacteria out there and if our systems are weakened or busy fighting off other breeds, then some might be able to get in and spread.
Just as low or high fever can be a clear indication of septic infection, so too can chills. If you’ve ever had the flu, you know that chills are an uncomfortable, worrying symptom of the virus. Well, chills happen with sepsis too and if you’re getting them, it may mean that the infection has spread to dangerous levels.
If your infection began in a certain spot, be it a tooth, a surgical site, or a stubbed toe, then it’s likely that pain will have spread to the surrounding area. This is generally a process that happens over the course of several days, so if you notice pain spreading from a finger wound, get to the doctor before it gets any worse and you have to amputate the limb.
Low blood pressure or increased heart rate are both cardiocentric signs that your infection might have reached a fever pitch. In fact, low blood pressure might indicate that you are in the critical stage between when an infection is dangerous and when it becomes deadly. IV and antibiotics may need to be used in order to treat at this stage.
Influenza, more commonly known as “the flu,” is one of the most common viral infections. It also happens to be one of the most contagious as well. Most of us have had it and have felt the symptoms like a runny nose, sore throat, aching muscles, fatigue, and high fever. But did you know the flu can also cause sepsis?
Pneumonia is not a fun ailment to come down with and those of us who have dealt with it know all too well the chest pains, coughing, and labored breathing that come along with the infection. It’s a tricky infection because it’s one that can be contracted whilst in the company of other infected people or in the hospital.
Diabetes is a disease that affects more than 100 million adults in the United States. Those with diabetes cannot properly regulate their blood sugar and must monitor it in order to ensure that their blood sugar levels are normal. If they’re too low, it means your body might starve if they are too high, well there are a number of consequences, including sepsis.
Lack of Glucose
Those with diabetes are more prone to developing wounds that don’t heal properly. Because of this, any tiny infection that isn’t properly treated can easily become aggressive. If these infections are left to their own devices, they can cause sepsis and can ultimately be fatal if resistant to antibiotics.
This is a big one. The appendix, for all those that don’t know, is a tiny 3 ½-inch-long tube of tissue that extends from our large intestine. It is a vestigial organ, which essentially means one that we used to need in prehistoric times but can do without nowadays. This is a good thing because the appendix is one organ that can and does become infected fairly easily.
Most people get through life without having their appendix removed, but if it does become inflamed, infected, and somehow bursts, sepsis can occur. Infections within the appendix are extremely serious and if you feel persistent pain in your lower right quadrant, it may behoove you to see a doctor as quickly as possible, just in case.
The kidneys act as a filter of sorts which removes and releases impurities and infections out into the bladder for release as urine. As such, they are one of the most important organs in the body. Kidney stones are small masses of calcium or uric acid that can sometimes form in the kidneys as a result of a malfunction with this filtration process.
Many times, these stones are small and can pass through the ureter without issue. When they are too big to pass or become stuck, they can lead to infections within the kidneys and may have to be removed surgically. If these infections worsen to the point of sepsis, it’s possible that the kidney itself might have to be removed to avoid the spread of infection.
Urinary Tract Infections
Often, when kidney stones become dislodged, even if they do make it through the ureter and out of the body, they may scrape against the inside of the urinary tract. This can lead to urinary tract infections. By the same token, any foreign or dangerous bacteria entering the urinary tract can cause painful infections.
Seek Medical Help
These types usually affect more women than they do men, but no one is immune to them. Antibiotics are usually administered at the first onset of the infection but if the condition spreads back to the kidneys, sepsis may develop as a result. The term for this is specifically named as urosepsis. Seek medical help right away if you suspect you have a urinary tract infection.
Meningitis is caused as a result of the inflammation of the protective tissues, known collectively as the meninges, covering the brain and spinal cord. Many things can inflame the meninges, but bacteria, viruses, and fungi are the three most common culprits of meningitis affecting us today.
Meningitis infections can be severe and can result in a difficult-to-cure a case of sepsis. The brain and spinal cord regulate everything in our bodies so it’s important to know the signs of meningitis and seek medical help as soon as possible. Common symptoms are fever, headache, neck stiffness, confusion, altered consciousness, vomiting, and an inability to tolerate light or loud noises.
Autoimmune diseases are also a fairly common cause of sepsis today. By definition, an autoimmune disease is a condition in which the body’s immune system is defective. Rather than attack bacteria, viruses, and other infections, the confused immune system instead attacks its own healthy cells.
Some examples of autoimmune diseases are celiac disease, diabetes mellitus type 1, Graves’ disease, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis. These are all potentially dangerous diseases that can compromise how our body fights off infections, thereby resulting in difficult-to-treat cases of sepsis.
It may seem slightly redundant, but the term “blood poisoning” doesn’t just mean sepsis. This blanket term is often used to describe not only septicemia but any type of bacteremia. Bacteremia means that there are bacteria in the blood, whereas septicemia describes any kind of blood infection, including those caused by unchecked viruses.
One of the worst cases of blood poisoning is one that affects the white blood cells in our bloodstream. It is often misdiagnosed as a form of sepsis but is actually an infection that can result in sepsis. Most of these blood infections can be severe and many can be fatal because the infection sometimes spreads as our blood circulates. Antibiotics are needed in most cases of blood poisoning.
Malaria is an infectious disease born of a parasite that affects humans and other animals alike, typically transmitted via mosquito bite. It is one of the deadliest diseases in the world. In 2017 alone, the World Health Organization reported 216 million cases of it across the globe. Though most of these cases were in Africa and other tropical regions.
Symptoms of malaria include fatigue, fever, vomiting, headaches, yellowing skin, and seizures. Coma and death can occur if the disease is left untreated, along with, you guessed it, sepsis. Remember, if you’re traveling to a region known to be home to malaria, take the necessary precautions and protect yourself.
The timely administration of antibiotics is one of the most effective ways to treat sepsis, at least before things like hypotension begin. Thanks to the proven effectiveness of a number of antibiotic cocktails, many paramedics and clinical care transport teams have begun taking these along with them for when they pick up patients.
Antibiotics en Route
That said, administering them whilst transporting patients in ambulances can be tricky though, and an investigation is still being made into the feasibility of this practice. Regardless of this, the studies look promising and would be a great additional tool for EMS workers to help stabilize septic patients en route before things get even worse.
Unfortunately, once septic shock begins, there’s very little that doctors can do to help. In fact, if IV fluids and antibiotics aren’t administered within an hour of arrival, it may be too late for many patients. Thus, knowing the early warning signs and causes of this deadly condition can help save your life.
The Internet can indeed provide advice on how to recognize the signs, but it ultimately falls upon the patient to determine if they need to take the next step and call 911. It is important that any reader who recognizes any of these indicators or potential causes of sepsis within themselves seek medical attention right away.