Septic Uterus, Septic Bowel, and More: Sepsis Misnomers

August 11, 2022

“Septic” is a word most people have heard of but usually in relation to items like septic tanks or systems. We know it’s a word that’s associated with something unpleasant, maybe even harmful. This is also true when we see the word related to health, as in septic shock. The dictionary defines septic as relating to or causing rotting or decay, related to or involving sepsis, or used for sewage treatment or disposal.

Given what the word means, it isn’t surprising to hear people using the word “septic” when describing infected body parts. You might hear someone say they had a “septic bowel” or “septic hip.” Most recently, this misnaming, or sepsis misnomer, was included in social media threads where posters used the term “septic uterus” when discussing abortions.

Why These Are Sepsis Misnomers

It might seem to make sense to refer to an infected body part as septic, but it’s not accurate and is a sepsis misnomer. Sepsis isn’t something that can be located in one particular part of your body, like an infection. Sepsis is your body’s inflammatory response to an infection. One way to explain how sepsis affects your body uses a bee sting analogy.

If you’re stung by a bee, the spot becomes red and swollen. This is a local reaction to the sting. The area usually heals and feels better in a few days. However, a bee sting can trigger an allergic reaction in some people. This systemic (whole-body) response can cause hives, a drop in blood pressure, fainting, and difficulty breathing. If the reaction is severe, called anaphylaxis, it can be fatal.

Now replace the bee sting with a cut. If you get a cut on your hand, it usually heals on its own, but sometimes a cut becomes infected. If not treated properly, this local infection can cause sepsis, a systemic response. Typically, your immune system works to fight the infection. But if you get sepsis, your immune system goes into overdrive and begins to fight your body, healthy tissues and all. If left untreated, sepsis can progress to severe sepsis and ultimately septic shock, which can be fatal.

Other Sepsis Misnomers

Unfortunately, even healthcare professionals use the wrong names sometimes. You may have heard other sepsis misnomers, like:

  • Blood infection
  • Blood poisoning
  • Septic infection
  • Septic poisoning
  • Septicemia

Part of using these terms could be out of habit, but part might be that the doctors and nurses are trying to connect with their patients and families, using words they believe are more understandable or relatable. If they use the word sepsis and the patient or family don’t understand, they have to take the time to explain it. It’s easier – for the doctors and nurses – to use more relatable words.

Septic Arthritis: Adding to the Confusion?

We know putting “septic” in front of a body part or organ to describe an infection isn’t a medical term, but that being said, there is a condition called septic arthritis. This isn’t a sepsis misnomer and is the exception to the rule. Septic arthritis occurs when the fluid inside a joint becomes infected.

The bacteria can enter the joint from an infection elsewhere in the body, or less commonly, through an open fracture (broken bone that breaks through the skin), an infected wound, or surgery near the joint. Usually, only one joint is affected, and as with all infections, septic arthritis can lead to sepsis and septic shock.

We Can All Help Reduce the Use of Sepsis Misnomers

We can all play a role in helping educate others on how to talk about sepsis by using the right word. If a healthcare professional says blood poisoning or any  other sepsis misnomer when speaking with you, you can clarify it by asking, “Do you mean sepsis?” This shows them that you know what sepsis is and not to be shy about using the word.

If people you know use a sepsis misnomer, you can gently correct them, even explaining why the term they used isn’t correct. And the more you use the right word, the more people will hear it and may start using it themselves.

You can learn more about sepsis and related issues here: