Prevention: Vaccinations

Sepsis cannot always be prevented, but since sepsis is caused by an infection, if we avoid becoming ill with an infection, sepsis may also be avoided. One way to reduce our risk of developing infections is by receiving vaccinations that target certain viruses (and a few types of bacteria). Viruses are tiny agents that live inside living cells, or host cells. Almost any virus could potentially trigger sepsis among anyone of any age, especially among people who have weakened immunes systems.

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 treatment for survival. Sepsis and septic shock can result from an infection anywhere in the body, such as pneumonia, influenza, or meningitis. 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.

What are vaccines?

Vaccines are medications that stimulate your immune system into producing antibodies against specific viruses. This is done by giving you either a killed or weakened organism of that particular virus. These organisms cannot make you ill, but they imitate the viral infection, causing your body to think it has developed the illness. Your immune system responds to vaccine by producing t-lymphocytes (also called t-cells) and antibodies. The t-cells circulate in your blood system looking for abnormalities or infections. The t-cells then “recruit” the antibody-producing lymphocytes and plasma cells.

Once your immune system has detected the organism, it makes antibodies to destroy the “invaders,” and then your body is left with a memory of how to fight off that particular illness should you encounter it again. Vaccines can be given by injection, by mouth, or by nasal spray, depending on the vaccine.

It can take anywhere from several days to a few weeks for a vaccination to become effective. For example, if you receive the vaccine for chicken pox and you are exposed within a few days to the disease, you may still become ill. In these cases, some people believe that the vaccination is what made them ill, but what happened was that they were exposed to the virus before their immune system had a chance to react to the vaccine.

Why a vaccine instead of natural immunity?

When you contract a virus, such as a meningitis or measles virus, your body tries to fight it. If it’s successful and the illness goes away, you develop an immunity to the disease and you should not get it again. This is a natural immunity. However, these illnesses are serious and can cause long-lasting damage to your body, and even sepsis and death. Vaccinations significantly reduce the damage that can be caused by many common viruses, and even some bacteria. For example, in the early 1900s, an average of 503,282 people died of measles each year in the U.S. Because of vaccinations against the illness, in 1990, only 89 people in the U.S. died from measles.

Keeping vaccines up-to-date

Some vaccines are given in a series of doses because it takes more than one dose for your immune system to recognize and build up antibodies against some viruses. Other vaccines must be repeated years later, a booster shot, because immunity wears off. Therefore, it’s important that vaccine schedules be followed and that boosters are kept up-to-date, even for adults.

Recommended vaccines

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) maintains a recommended vaccine schedule for children and teens. Starting at birth through to 18 years, the schedules explain which vaccines should be given when, and what is involved.

Following the recommended schedules gives your children the best chances at reducing their risk of developing these largely preventable illnesses and associated complications that could occur.

Adults who haven’t received the recommended vaccines as children can still receive vaccinations against the diseases, including the so-called childhood diseases. In addition, there are other recommended vaccines for adults, including older adults, such as for pneumonia and shingles.

Extra vaccinations

If you travel to foreign countries or work in a field that may expose you to certain illnesses, you may be required to receive additional vaccines. When traveling overseas, check with the CDC to see which vaccines are recommended and which are mandatory. Some countries will deny entry to people who have not received mandatory vaccinations, particularly if you are going to specific parts of the country, such as the jungle or farmlands.

Exceptions to vaccinations

Not everyone can receive some vaccines. For example, people who have weakened immune systems may be advised to delay or not receive vaccinations.  Some people are allergic to an ingredient in a particular vaccine.

People who can’t be vaccinated against certain illnesses are not protected from contracting them, so it’s vital that the people around them are vaccinated, providing herd immunity. If the people who are regularly in contact with the unvaccinated person are vaccinated, the unvaccinated person has a lower chance of being exposed to the virus or bacteria and becoming ill.

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.

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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 20, 2019