Sepsis and septic shock can result from an infection anywhere in the body, including pneumonia. Pneumonia can be community-acquired, meaning that a person becomes ill with pneumonia outside of the hospital. Pneumonia can also be caused by a healthcare-associated infection (HAI), which affect 1.7 million hospitalizations in the United States every year. An HAI is an infection that is contracted by people while the hospital for a different reason, such as surgery or treatment for another illness.
Sometimes incorrectly called blood poisoning, sepsis is the body’s often deadly response to infection. Sepsis kills and disables millions and requires early suspicion and rapid treatment for survival.
Sepsis and septic shock can result from an infection anywhere in the body, such as influenza or urinary tract infections. 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.
The most common source of infection among adults is the lungs.
What is pneumonia?
Pneumonia is an infection in the lungs. The infection can be only in one lung, or it can be in both. There are several causes of pneumonia but the most common are:
Left untreated, the infection can be deadly. In the days before antibiotics, it’s estimated that about one-third of those who developed bacterial pneumonia died.
Some people can have pneumonia and not know it, but the most common signs and symptoms are:
- Cough, with phlegm
- Shortness of breath
- Shaking chills
- Muscle pain
- Chest pain with breathing
You do not have to have all these symptoms to have pneumonia.
Who is at higher risk for developing the infection?
While anyone can develop pneumonia, some people are at higher risk than others. These include:
- The elderly
- The very young
- People who recently had a cold or influenza
- Having a respiratory illness, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Exposure to certain inhaled toxins
- Having recently had surgery
- People in intensive care units
What is the treatment?
Treatment depends on the type of infection you have.
Bacterial pneumonia is treated with antibiotics. The type of antibiotics your doctor may choose depends on the bacteria causing the infection. If you are given a prescription for antibiotics, it is essential that you finish all the medication, even if you start to feel better. You will begin to feel more like yourself before the infection is completely gone and if you stop taking the medications before the infection disappears, you could get a more serious pneumonia that can’t be treated as easily.
Viral pneumonia can’t be treated with antibiotics; they will not do any good. In general, there isn’t much that can be done for viral pneumonia other than advising that you rest and take in plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. In some cases, doctors may prescribe an anti-viral medication, but this is not common.
Fungal pneumonia is treated with medications called anti-fungals.
Pneumonia may be prevented in some cases. If you have surgery that requires general anesthetic, you could be at risk for developing bacterial infection. To lower the risk, you will likely be encouraged to get up and out of bed very quickly after the surgery. If it isn’t possible to get up and move around, you will be encouraged to breathe deeply and cough on a regular basis. This is to help keep your lungs clear.
There is a vaccine that can help prevent a common type of pneumonia called pneumococcal pneumonia. It is caused by a bacterium called Streptococcus pneumoniae. There is also a vaccine that doctors can give children to decrease the risk of developing one of four types of infections:
- Meningitis (infection in the brain)
- Bacteremia (infection in the blood)
- Otitis media (infection in the middle ear)
The vaccine is often recommended for the elderly and for people who are at high risk of developing pneumonia. If you fall into one of those categories, you may want to discuss this with your doctor.
If you suspect sepsis, call 9-1-1 or go to a hospital and tell your medical professional, “I AM CONCERNED ABOUT SEPSIS.”
The information here is also available as a Sepsis Information Guide, which is a downloadable format for easier printing.
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 May 11, 2021.