A virus is a tiny agent (germ) that lives inside living cells, or host cells. Viruses need living cells to replicate or reproduce. There are thousands of viruses, some more common than others. For example, the common cold and the flu are viruses, but so are COVID-19, Ebola and HIV. Viral infections that may be minor in healthy individuals can be quite severe for people who have a weakened immune system. Almost any virus can lead to sepsis.
Sepsis, which was often called blood poisoning, is the body’s life-threatening response to infection or injury. 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. While bacterial infections are the most common cause of sepsis, viral infections can cause sepsis too. 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 viral infections
Viruses “hijack” normal, living cells in your body. They use these cells to replicate and multiply, eventually destroying the host cell – this is what makes you sick. Unlike bacterial infections that respond to antibiotics, viral infections are not so easy to treat. Many, like colds, run their course and your body heals on its own, but others, like HIV, do not.
Some of the more common viruses include:
- Influenza (the flu)
- HIV, which can lead to AIDS
- Meningitis (there is also bacterial meningitis)
- Pneumonia (there is also bacterial pneumonia)
- Human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Chicken pox
The name of one type of infection, septic arthritis, may be confusing to some people because it is not sepsis, despite its name. Septic arthritis is an infection in the joint fluid. However, this type of infection can also lead to sepsis. It can be caused by viruses, as well as other microbes.
Symptoms of viral infections
The signs and symptoms of a viral infection depend on what virus you have and how it affects your body. Here are a few examples:
- Muscle ache
- Sore throat
- Stiff neck
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sensitivity to light (photophobia)
Viruses spread in different ways, depending on the virus. Hepatitis C, a liver disease, spreads through body fluid. On the other hand, influenza spreads by contact with virus left behind on an object, like a phone, or through droplets in the air, if someone with the flu sneezes or coughs in front of you. Not all viral infections can be prevented, but you can reduce your risk of contracting a virus in a few ways:
- Stay up-to-date with all recommended vaccines, even adults (To learn more about vaccines, visit Sepsis Prevention: Vaccinations)
- Wash your hands frequently
- Avoid contact with people who are ill
- Don’t share personal items.
- Eat a healthy diet. Malnutrition, not consuming enough nutrients for your needs, can lower your body’s ability to fight infection.
Viral infections are usually treated by managing the symptoms. This often means using over-the-counter pain relievers to ease pain and reduce fever, rest for fatigue, etc., until the virus is gone. The viruses themselves are not easy to treat. For example, hepatitis C, treatment involves a strict medication regimen for several weeks up to a few months before the virus is cleared from your body. Other viruses don’t have a cure, but medications may speed healing if they are taken early enough after your exposure to the virus. These include medications for influenza and shingles (herpes zoster). Medications for other viruses, such as HIV, keep the virus in check, but aren’t a cure. They can prevent the virus from replicating and causing more damage.
Sometimes, people who have viral infections, such as influenza, can develop severe bacterial infections, in addition to the viral infection. For example, influenza and other respiratory viral illnesses, could lead to pneumonia. These are called secondary infections.
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.
Suggested Citation: Sepsis Alliance. Sepsis and Viral Infections. 2023. https://www.sepsis.org/sepsisand/viral-infections/
Updated July 6, 2023.