Viral Infections

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.

Sometimes incorrectly called blood poisoning, sepsis 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:

  • COVID-19
  • Influenza (the flu)
  • HIV, which can lead to AIDS
  • Meningitis (there is also bacterial meningitis)
  • Pneumonia (there is also bacterial pneumonia)
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Herpes
  • Rotavirus
  • Chicken pox

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:

Influenza:

  • Fever
  • Muscle ache
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Headache

Meningitis:

  • Stiff neck
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Rash
  • Sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • Confusion

Prevention

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.

Treatment

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.

Complications

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.

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. 2022. https://www.sepsis.org/sepsisand/viral-infections/

Updated July 12, 2022.

Read Personal Stories of Sepsis and Viral Infections

Emilie O’c

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Here is our story about one precious little girl, called Emilie, aged just 10 months old. Our daughter was born on April 6th with a health condition, which never hindered her. We weren’t sure if she would even survive at birth, but she proved everyone wrong and was fantastic, doing everything a normal baby does. We were so happy with our little miracle baby! AT 2 WEEKS OLD At just two weeks old, Emilie developed a Group B Strep urine infection and the doctors looking after her advised us she was starting to go septic, but they had caught it ... Read Full Story

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Emma Moss

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I felt completely fine in the lead up to my diagnosis. Monday night I woke up with a pain that I can’t fully describe but I knew something was wrong and that I needed to go to the hospital. I got up and got dressed but felt too weak to go so I lay back down. After a while I woke my partner, who then brought me to hospital. Once there I did some blood tests and x-rays which came back clear so I was sent home with a high fever and a viral infection. (Sepsis and Viral Infections) The ... Read Full Story

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Jesse R.

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On the 25th of April 2020 I woke up feeling a bit off. I had felt nauseous and tired the entire day, but decided I could make it to work that evening. I tried the best I could to work through the discomfort. After an hour in I was on my way home. That entire night I got more and more sick, feeling as if I had a severe flu. The next morning I had my roommate take me to the Dallas VA emergency room. I knew that something didn’t feel right. I couldn’t even hold water down. They hooked ... Read Full Story

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Joshua Roy

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On Oct 13th 2019, my 13 year old son, Josh became very ill; only complaining of a sore throat and fever the day prior. Josh went unresponsive in our home, an ambulance came and took him to the closest hospital where the doctor immediately intubated him and sent him on a helicopter to Riley Hospital for Children. The outlook seemed to be grim. Josh’s diagnoses was influenza b, necrotizing staph pneumonia, viral myocarditis, and septic shock. (Sepsis and Influenza, Sepsis and Pneumonia, Sepsis and Viral Infections, Sepsis and Septic Shock) Our boy wasn’t expected to live. The night he arrived ... Read Full Story

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Jeanne L.

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I had a virus which I caught from my son five years ago. He had gone to the doctor and was told no meds needed. I stayed home alone with my illness while my son was on a camping trip and my daughter with young children stayed away to avoid catching my cold. (Sepsis and Viral Infections) My virus suddenly went from making me feel very sick, to not remembering a thing. I barely recall seeing some blood when I coughed and nothing after that. I had written an email to my work with crazy, nonsensical info that should have ... Read Full Story

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Viral Infections

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.