Sepsis occurs when your body has an extreme response to an infection you already have. The dangers of sepsis include tissue damage, organ failure, and death.
Patty Duke died unexpectedly in 2016. She had been hospitalized with a ruptured intestine and experienced a serious infection. But what killed the Oscar winning actress was sepsis, her body’s extreme response to the infection. The result was a fatal chain reaction throughout her body, causing her organs to shut down.
Older age can raise the risk for sepsis; Patty Duke was almost 70. Also at risk are babies and very young children, people with a weakened immune system or diabetes, and anyone with liver or kidney disease.
Yet, anyone of any age and health status can develop sepsis. And, unfortunately, the life-threatening condition may not be recognized and treated early because symptoms often appear to be part of an initial infection.
A case in point: A healthy, energetic 12-year-old boy, Rory Staunton, cut his arm diving for a basketball in his gym class. The next day, he developed a fever and felt ill. A trip to the ER resulted in Rory receiving extra fluids and Tylenol; then he was sent home. But, as The New York Times reported, an infection from the cut in the child’s arm was already causing a cascade of events, resulting in a septic crisis. His blood pressure plunged, his organs failed (septic shock), and Rory died three days later in an intensive care unit.
Learning about the seriousness and dangers of sepsis — and knowing if you or a loved one have symptoms of sepsis — is crucial to getting potentially lifesaving help as soon as possible.
Sepsis is not rare
You may not have heard much about sepsis, but that doesn’t mean you won’t eventually know someone who develops this life-threatening condition.
Sepsis, once commonly known as “blood poisoning,” was usually deadly a few decades ago. While it’s not as common has heart disease, cancer, or many other top killers, sepsis still takes a serious death toll. And the dangers of sepsis warrant taking this condition very seriously.
At least 1.7 million American adults develop sepsis, about 270,000 of them dying as a result. In fact, one in three people who die in a hospital have sepsis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Learn the warning signs of sepsis
Of course, people of all ages and conditions can have a variety of infections, from colds and flu to bacterial and fungal infections, and never develop sepsis. There are warning signs, however, that should warrant a prompt visit with a doctor or an ER.
It’s important to understand early symptoms of sepsis are often nonspecific, such as vomiting, diarrhea, muscle aches and pains, and weakness. So, sepsis can be confused during its early course with influenza or other infections caused by viruses.
This list of additional sepsis symptoms from the CDC can help alert you to seek medical help:
- S: Shivering, fever, or very cold.
- E: Extreme pain or general discomfort (“worst ever”).
- P: Pale or discolored skin.
- S: Sleepy, difficult to rouse, confused.
- I: “I feel like I might die.”
- S: Shortness of breath.
If you or someone you know has any of these symptoms, the Sepsis Alliance urges you to seek urgent medical help. Call 911 or go to a hospital with an advocate. Don’t hesitate to be proactive with a medical provider, if you are concerned about sepsis, and insist on an evaluation for that condition.
New hope in fighting the dangers of sepsis
One major problem in successfully treating sepsis is the fact that not all antibiotics are effective against certain bacterial infections.
"Patients are placed on a standard course of antibiotics when they initially present with possible sepsis," said Ritu Banerjee, MD, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt. "These antibiotics may be ineffective, or conversely, too broad-spectrum. Conventional culture and susceptibility testing methods take days for results to identify the bacteria and drug resistance.”
And waiting for two or three days can be too late for a patient whose organs are beginning to shut down. So, Banerjee and her colleagues at the Mayo Clinic and UCLA studied a method, the Accelerate Pheno System, to identify infectious organisms and what antibiotics would effectively treat the bacteria. The study looked at the outcomes of 448 patients; half received standard care and half were tested and treated based on findings from the rapid testing system.
“The median time to the first antibiotic change was 24 hours faster in the rapid testing arm compared to the control arm,” Banerjee explained. “It was proof that faster actionable results led to timelier, targeted antibiotic therapy.”
Banerjee added she hopes the findings of the research prompt more diagnostic companies to work on developing better ways to rapidly identify bacteria causing infections, so doctors can treat sepsis more effectively.
“One of the challenges is the cost of the testing, because rapid testing methods are more expensive than conventional methods,” she said. “The overarching goal is to improve outcomes for patients with sepsis.”
Bottom line? The dangers of sepsis require fast action
The rapid identification of sepsis is crucial to survival. Failure to provide antibiotics and IV fluids quickly can result in septic shock (dangerously low blood pressure and organ failure). A person in septic shock can lose eight percent of their body function every hour, according to the Rory Staunton Foundation for Sepsis Prevention, a non-profit organization founded by Rory Staunton’s family to promote awareness about the dangers of sepsis.
There is no single test to diagnose sepsis. Instead, symptoms and a physical exam, blood and urine tests, blood cultures, and a variety of additional tests (including testing for endotoxin, which indicates bacteria in the bloodstream, and procalcitronin, a protein that rises if you have a bacterial infection) can help confirm a sepsis diagnosis.
Because time is crucial when dealing with the potential dangers of sepsis, treatment with fluids and antibiotics should begin right away if a doctor suspects sepsis, even before tests confirm the condition. Without treatment, death can follow quickly.
July 08, 2021
Janet O'Dell, RN