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 contracted by people while the hospital for a different reason, such as surgery or treatment for another illness.
Sepsis, which was often called blood poisoning, 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 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. You may have heard the term “walking pneumonia.” It’s not an official medical term, but it usually means that it is a mild case, producing milder, slower-to-develop symptoms.
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, influenza, or COVID-19
- Having a respiratory illness, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Exposure to certain inhaled toxins
- Recent surgery
- People in intensive care units
- People who are malnourished
What is the treatment?
Treatment depends on the type of infection you have.
Antibiotics treat bacterial pneumonia. The type of antibiotics your doctor would choose depends on the bacteria causing the infection. If you have a prescription for antibiotics, you should 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. If you stop the medications before the infection disappears, you could get a more serious pneumonia that can’t be treated as easily.
Viral pneumonia does not respond to 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.
Medications called anti-fungals treat fungal pneumonia.
Sometimes we can prevent pneumonia. If you have surgery that requires general anesthetic, you could be at risk for developing a bacterial pneumonia. To lower the risk, you will be encouraged to get up and out of bed after the surgery, even if you may not feel up to it. If you can’t get up and move around, breathe deeply and cough on a regular basis. This is to help keep your lungs clear. You might be given a device called an incentive spirometer. This small device encourages you to take deep breaths, to expand your lungs.
There is a vaccine that can help prevent pneumococcal pneumonia, caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae. The CDC recommends that all adults over 65 and adults over 18 with certain risk factors receive the vaccine.
There is also a vaccine for children to decrease their 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)
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 September 18, 2023.