Bacteria are microscopic single-cell microorganisms (microbes) that are all around us. Most are harmless, and many are helpful. For example, bacteria in your intestines (gut) help break down the food you eat so your body can digest it. However, some types of bacteria can cause bacterial infections, which in turn can cause sepsis.
Sometimes incorrectly called blood poisoning, sepsis is the body’s life-threatening response to infection. Like strokes or heart attacks, sepsis is a medical emergency that requires rapid diagnosis and treatment.
Sepsis and septic shock can result from an infection anywhere in the body, such as pneumonia, influenza, or urinary tract infections. Bacterial infections are the most common cause of sepsis. Worldwide, one-third of people who develop sepsis die. Many who survive are left with life-changing effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain and fatigue, organ dysfunction (organs don’t work properly), and/or amputations.
Examples of bacterial infections
Bacteria must enter your body for them to cause an infection. So you can get a bacterial infection through an opening in your skin, such as a cut, a bug bite, or a surgical wound. Bacteria can also enter your body through your airway and cause infections like bacterial pneumonia. Other types of bacterial infections include urinary tract infections (including bladder and kidney infections) and dental abscesses, as well as infections caused by MRSA, Group B Streptococcus, and C. Difficile. Infections can also occur in open wounds, such as pressure ulcers (bed sores). Pressure ulcers are caused by constant pressure on the skin for extended periods or rubbing. For example, a senior who is bedridden could develop sores on the coccyx (tailbone) area, elbows, heels, or anywhere else where there is constant contact with a bed or adapted “easy chair.”
Sometimes bacterial infections are “secondary infections.” For example, if you contract COVID-19 – a virus – your body is in a weakened state and could also develop bacterial pneumonia. You would then be fighting both a viral infection and a bacterial one.
What are the symptoms of a bacterial infection?
Bacterial infections present in many ways, depending on the part of the body affected. If you have bacterial pneumonia, you may experience
- Cough, with phlegm
- Shortness of breath
- Shaking chills
- Muscle pain
- Chest pain with breathing
If you have a urinary tract infection, you may have some of these symptoms:
- Sudden and extreme urges to void (pass urine)
- Frequent urges to void
- Burning, irritation, or pain as you void
- A feeling of not emptying your bladder completely
- A feeling of pressure in your abdomen or lower back
- Thick or cloudy urine – it may contain blood
The common element with most bacterial infections are:
- Pain or discomfort in the affected area
But if the infection is in a joint, that joint and the surrounding area will likely hurt; if you have a sinus infection, you will probably have a headache and foul nasal discharge, and so on.
Not all infections can be prevented, but the chances of spreading these infections can be greatly reduced by following these tips:
- Wash your hands often, particularly if you are in a healthcare facility.
- Keep wounds clean and covered.
- Avoid sharing personal items, such as razors.
- Eat a healthy diet. Malnutrition, not consuming enough nutrients for your needs, can lower your body’s ability to fight infection.
Most often, treatment for a bacterial infection is with antibiotics. They could be taken orally (by pill, liquid, or capsule), injection, drops, topical (cream or ointment), or intravenously (by IV). The treatment may be very short, or it could go as long as several weeks, depending on the type of infection and how it reacts to the antibiotics. Sometimes, the infection will not go away, and your doctor may have to try a different type of antibiotic.
If you suspect sepsis, call 9-1-1 or go to a hospital and tell your medical professional, “I AM CONCERNED ABOUT SEPSIS.”
Would you like to share your story about sepsis or read about others who have had sepsis? Please visit Faces of Sepsis, where you will find hundreds of stories from survivors and tributes to those who died from sepsis.
Updated January 24, 2022.