Things you should know

Sepsis affects you throughout your body. These are some examples of how someone’s body reacts when sepsis begins:

  • Your blood pressure may drop because your blood vessels (the arteries and veins) have dilated, or have opened a bit wider. Because there is more space to fill, your heart has to work harder to push the blood through at a normal pressure.
  • Your pulse rate goes higher because your heart is pumping harder and faster to do its work.
  • You may feel breathless or are breathing quickly.
  • Your skin may become cold and you may lose color, becoming pale. There may be a an unusual color or rash, or your skin may become mottled, marked in patterns or patchy in color.

You may have other symptoms too, depending on the infection that caused the sepsis. For example, if you had pneumonia, you may have had a bad cough as well.

As sepsis progresses, your blood pressure may become very low, which means that not enough blood and oxygen can reach your organs. This can lead to organ failure. The kidneys, lungs, brain, and heart are particularly at risk. Signs may be:

  • A drop in your urine output.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Darkening patches on the skin, perhaps blistering.
  • You may become confused, may have lost consciousness.
  • Your body may retain (keep) fluid, which causes swelling all over, making you much bigger than what you normally are. This occurs because the blood vessels may leak, allowing fluid into places it isn t normally, including out of the skin.

What happens in the ICU

Intensive care units, or critical care units, are specialized areas in the hospital where the most ill patients are treated.

In an ICU, patients are carefully watched and monitored for:

  • Heart rate (pulse)
  • Blood pressure
  • Respiratory (breathing) rate
  • Oxygen levels in the blood
  • Fluid taken in (by mouth and by intravenous)
  • Fluid put out through urine and various other tests
  • ICU patients may need special support, such as ventilation machines, to help them breathe
  • Dialysis machines, to do the work of the kidneys by filtering toxins from the body
  • Life support, keeping the heart and lungs going

Intensive care staff members (doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, respiratory therapists, and others) are highly trained in advanced life support. Nurses have only one or two patients, in any cases, to watch and care for, allowing for more one-on-one care.

What do the nurses do in the ICU?

The nurses help coordinate your care, provide your care, and monitor your responses to treatment.

They monitor you by watching your vital signs (pulse, blood pressure, temperature, etc) and test results.

They give medications and perform procedures, such as dressing changes, inserting urinary catheters (to drain urine from your bladder).

They clean out your breathing tube (tracheostomy) if you have one, by suctioning out phlegm.

They turn you often to reduce the risk of bedsores; moving your arms and legs to keep them from getting too stiff.

What type of treatment did I get to treat my sepsis?

While the actual treatment can be different from person to person, the basics are the same for the most part. Visit the treatment page to learn more.

Many hospitals use a treatment bundle known as SEP-1. To learn more about it, click here.


You probably received many strong drugs to fight the infection. They may have included antibiotics, anti-fungal or anti-viral drugs, depending on what caused the infection. Sometimes it is necessary for the medical team to try different drugs to find the ones that will best treat your illness, and your condition may have gone up and down as the new drugs were introduced.

Other medications may have included analgesics, (painkillers), sedatives, and medications to control your blood pressure.


You may have been given a mask to wear that allowed you to breathe oxygen. If your body was unable to breathe it in effectively, the doctors may have put in a breathing tube, or intubated you, so the tube could be hooked up to a machine that would push air and oxygen into your lungs.

If someone is to be on a ventilator for a while, doctors may give a trachostomy, which is a small hole in the base of the throat that allows the breathing tube to go directly into the trachea, or breathing tube.


Different machines may have helped your body’s functions until you were well enough to do these for yourself. These may have included a dialysis machine for your kidneys, a ventilator to help you breath, or a life support machine.

Nutritional Support

Aside from the intravenous (IV) lines that give fluid, you may have had a tube through your nose that went down to your stomach. This tube allows the nurses to give you liquid nutrition.

How long does someone with sepsis stay in an ICU?

The length of time you have to stay in the ICU depends on how ill you are and the type of help you need. You will only be discharged from the ICU when you no longer need the special drugs and machines to support your body and when you are strong enough to cope on a general unit. It can take weeks of treatment in the hospital overall. Some people go to a rehabilitation facility before going home. You may find that once you are home, it may take several months to feel strong and well again. Click here for a discharge checklist.

Sepsis Alliance Connect is a virtual support community designed for the millions of people affected by sepsis. Click here to learn more or to sign up.