Sepsis: Symptoms, Causes, Risk factors, and Treatment

Sepsis is a deadly condition caused by the presence of harmful microorganisms in the blood or other tissues and the body’s response to it. The body normally releases chemicals into the bloodstream to fight an infection. Sepsis occurs when the body’s response to these chemicals goes haywire, thereby triggering changes that can damage multiple organ systems.

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If sepsis progresses to septic shock, blood pressure can drop intensely, this condition can be life-threatening. Sepsis is caused by infection and can happen to anyone. Sepsis is most common and most dangerous in:

  • People who have weakened immune systems
  • Children younger than 1
  • Pregnant women
  • Older adults
  • People who have chronic conditions, such as diabetes, kidney or lung disease, or cancer

The chances of survival can be greatly improved if sepsis is treated early with antibiotics and large amounts of intravenous fluids.


For sepsis to be diagnosed, you must have a confirmed infection and all of the following signs:

  • Respiratory rate higher than or equal to 22 breaths a minute
  • Change in mental status
  • A first (upper) number in a blood pressure reading — also called the systolic pressure — that’s less than or equal to 100 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg)

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Signs and symptoms of septic shock

Sepsis can progress to septic shock when there are abnormal changes in the functioning of the circulatory system, the body’s cells and how the body utilizes energy. Septic shock is more likely to cause death than sepsis.

For septic shock to be diagnosed, you must have a confirmed infection and both of the following:

  • The need for medication to maintain blood pressure greater than or equal to 65 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).
  • High levels of lactic acid in your blood (serum lactate) after you have received adequate fluid replacement. Having excess lactic acid in your blood means that your cells aren’t expending oxygen properly.

Causes of Sepsis

Though any type of bacterial, viral or fungal infection can lead to sepsis, the most likely varieties include:

  • Bloodstream infection (bacteremia)
  • Pneumonia
  • Infection of the kidney, bladder and other parts of the urinary system
  • Infection of the digestive system

Risk factors

Sepsis and septic shock are more common if you:

  • Have diabetes or cirrhosis
  • Have wounds or injuries, such as burns
  • Are very young or very old
  • Have a compromised immune system
  • Are already very sick, often in a hospital intensive care unit
  • Have previously received antibiotics or corticosteroids
  • Have invasive devices, such as intravenous catheters or breathing tubes

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Sepsis causes the blood flow to vital organs, such as the heart, kidneys, and brain to become reduced as the infection progresses. Sepsis can also cause blood clots to form in your organs and in your arms, legs, fingers and toes leading to gangrene (tissue death).


To properly diagnose sepsis doctors will order several tests to try to identify underlying infection. Such tests include:

Blood tests

A blood sample drawn from two distinct sites is tested for:

  • Clot problems
  • Problems with functioning of liver or kidney
  • Infection
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Decreased oxygen availability

Other laboratory tests

Your doctor may also want to run tests on one or more of the following bodily fluids:

  • Wound secretions
  • Urine
  • Respiratory secretions

Imaging tests

Your doctor may order one or more of the following imaging tests if the site of infection is not observable. These additional tests may include:

  • X-ray.To visualize problems in your lungs.
  • Computerized tomography (CT).To check for infections in your appendix or pancreas
  • This involves using sound waves to produce real-time images on a video monitor.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).Helps in identifying soft tissue infections. This technology uses radio waves and a strong magnet to produce cross-sectional images of the internal structures of your body.

Treating Sepsis

Treating sepsis at the onset boosts your chances of survival. People who have sepsis require close monitoring and treatment in a hospital intensive care unit. Lifesaving measures may be required to stabilize breathing and heart function if you have sepsis or septic shock.


A number of medications are used in treating sepsis and septic shock. They include:

  • Antibiotics medications are usually administered intravenously.

After learning the results of blood tests, your doctor may switch to a different antibiotic that’s targeted to fight the particular bacteria causing the infection.

  • Intravenous fluids.People who have sepsis often receive intravenous fluids right away, usually within three hours.
  • Vasopressor medication may be given if your blood pressure remains too low even after receiving intravenous fluids. This helps to constricts blood vessels and increase blood pressure.


Disclaimer: The content provided on is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical doctor or healthcare professional.


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