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Bacterial Infections

Bacteria are microscopic single-cell microorganisms that are found all around us. Most of them 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 often deadly 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 do 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 may 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 of time, 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 – which is a virus – your body is in a weakened state and you 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

  • Fever
  • Cough, with phlegm
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Shaking chills
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Fatigue
  • 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
  • Fever

The common element with most bacterial infections are:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • 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.

Prevention

Not all infections can be prevented, but the chances of spreading bacterial 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.

Treatment

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 November 1, 2021.

Read Personal Stories of Sepsis and Bacterial Infections

Steven Keske

Survivor

In April 2020 my son came to me and said his leg hurt. I coughed it up to growing pains. The next morning he woke up to a rash and a fever. He said he leg hurt. Called his doctor and was referred to urgent care. The urgent care doctor said it was a virus and let it take its course. And do Google Covid testing sites. Within 24hrs I found my son’s lifeless body, I rushed him to the children’s hospital and that’s when we found out what he really had. If I didn’t check on him that night ... Read Full Story

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Judith Lipton

Survivor, Survivor

I nearly died of sepsis almost exactly one year ago, starting on May 22, 2020. I want to tell my story especially since I may be among the few people who have lived through severe encephalopathy and survived without incapacitating brain damage. I also want to educate people about the signs of sepsis, and the need for informed consent. Thanks for listening to me. Even though I am a physician myself and my husband is a professional biologist, we did not recognize the initial signs of sepsis. We should have gone to the hospital right away, as soon as I ... Read Full Story

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Holli T.

Survivor, Survivor, Survivor

I am a 2x triple negative breast cancer survivor AND a 2x sepsis survivor. The day Oregon shut down due to COVID-19, I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. After I went through chemo and recovered, I underwent my second bilateral mastectomy to remove implants from my first bout with cancer (2017). At some point, I touched my dog and then my drain tube. It took less than 8 hours for my drainage to go from normal, to green and gross looking. (Sepsis and Cancer, Sepsis and Surgery, Sepsis and Invasive Devices) I was hospitalized, put on antibiotics. I was ... Read Full Story

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Christine Caron

Survivor, Survivor, Survivor, Survivor

Can you imagine waking up in ICU, being informed you have been there for a month… and having no idea how you got there?! Spring 2013, I had not been feeling quite myself for months. I had been under some heavy stress in both my personal and professional life. I had an infected blemish on my face and reoccurring bronchitis. May 16th, I was playing tug’a’war outside with my dogs when one accidentally nipped my left hand. (Sepsis and Animal Bites) This was not an act of aggression. I properly cleaned and disinfect the tiny break in the skin. There ... Read Full Story

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JR Smith

Survivor, Survivor, Survivor, Survivor, Survivor

In 2014 I had a sore throat, felt a bit swollen on the side. The GP I had at the time said they don’t prescribe antibiotics for sore throats so I went away with paracetamol. The next 48 hours I took what he gave me every four hours but felt worse. By the weekend it looked like I had a football in my throat so my partner took me to a walk-in GP who gave me antibiotics but too late. The very next morning, woke around 3:30, literally struggling to breathe. She phoned an ambulance, got rushed to the hospital. ... Read Full Story

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Bacterial Infections

Bacteria are microscopic single-cell microorganisms that are found all around us. Most of them 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.