What Is Sepsis? What It Is and What It Isn’t


December 14th, 2018

sepsis, what is sepsis, infection, what is an infection

There are many misconceptions related to sepsis and it’s important to know what sepsis really is in order to understand how to identify it and seek medical help in a timely manner. The most common misconception is that sepsis is an infection. It isn’t. Sepsis is the body’s response to an infection. In other words, you have to have an infection somewhere in your body for sepsis to occur.

The second most common sepsis misconception is that sepsis starts most often in the hospital. In reality, up to 80% of sepsis cases start in the community – at home, at work, and at school. The last most common misconception related to sepsis is that infections aren’t serious. Unfortunately, infections can be very serious because they can trigger sepsis, which kills more people in the United States than breast cancer, prostate cancer, and AIDS – combined.

What are infections?

An infection occurs when an organism, in this case your body, is invaded by a disease-causing agent. The agent could be bacteria, a virus, a parasite, or a fungus. These agents can make you sick by disrupting or killing the “good” cells in your body. We are exposed to infection-causing agents through our everyday activities. For example, you can touch a doorknob that has a cold virus that someone left behind, someone with the flu may sneeze near you, you can cut your finger on an object that has MRSA bacteria on it, or you can eat contaminated food. When working well, your body’s immune system can prevent this exposure from causing an infection. If the infection does take hold, your immune system tries to fight it.

Fighting infections

Once your body detects an infection, your immune system begins to produce extra white blood cells and chemicals to fight the damaging agents. If your body can’t fight the infection alone, you may get some help with medications. Antibiotics help fight bacterial infections, antivirals may work on some viruses, antifungals on fungal infections, and antiparasitics on parasitic infections.

The most common infections that cause sepsis are respiratory (like pneumonia) or urinary tract infections. But sepsis can also develop with influenza (the flu), an infected cut or scrape, or strep throat, to name a few.

It’s clear that sepsis doesn’t occur without an infection in your body, but it is possible that someone develops sepsis without realizing they had an infection in the first place. And sometimes, doctors never discover what the initial infection was.

While most people who develop infections do recover, either on their own or with medication, almost 2 million people a year in the U.S. don’t. They go on to develop sepsis. Of these, over a quarter of a million die.

What is sepsis then?

Sepsis is not a “thing,” like bacteria or a virus. It isn’t an organism that can affect a particular organ or part of your body. Therefore, you can’t have sepsis in your lungs or sepsis in your liver. In the way pain is a reaction to a trauma to your body, such as a cut or fracture, sepsis is a reaction to infection.

Sepsis occurs when your body’s immune system starts to send infection-fighting chemicals throughout your body rather than just to the infection itself. These chemicals cause inflammation and start to attack the healthy tissues. Your body is no longer fighting the infection, it’s fighting itself. Researchers don’t know why this happens.

The inflammation caused by sepsis can damage your organs. Your blood can begin to clot inside your blood vessels, preventing blood from flowing to your limbs and organs. This deprives them of necessary nutrients and oxygen. If you develop septic shock, this means your blood pressure has gotten dangerously low, also making it hard for your blood to reach throughout your body.

Once you have been successfully treated for sepsis, the inflammation is gone and you no longer have it. Sepsis doesn’t hide in the body to re-emerge later on. However, if you had sepsis once, if you get another infection, you are at higher risk of having it again.

Recognizing sepsis

If you have any signs or symptoms of sepsis, particularly if you have recently been ill, had an infection, or underwent an invasive medical procedure, such as insertion of a urinary catheter, surgery, dental work, or even an intravenous (IV), seek medical help as quickly as possible. Every minute counts when fighting sepsis.

Use the word TIME to remember the most common sepsis symptoms:

T – Is your temperature higher or lower than normal?

I – Did you or do you have any signs of an infection?

M – Is there any change in your mental status, such as confusion or excessive sleepiness?

E – Are you experiencing any extreme pain or illness, even a feeling of “I feel I might die”?

Reducing the risk of sepsis

The only way to prevent sepsis is to prevent infections from occurring in the first place. Many viral infections, such as the flu and children’s diseases like chicken pox and rubella, can be avoided through regular vaccinations. Other infections can be prevented with good, consistent hand washing, and by cleaning and protecting open wounds.

If an infection does occur, you can reduce the risk of sepsis from developing by treating the infection seriously. Consult with your doctor or nurse practitioner about the best way to treat it and follow the plan until the infection is gone.

To learn more about sepsis and how it is connected to various health issues and conditions, visit our Sepsis and… library.