Sepsis 101: What You Need to Know

The diagnosis Sepsis written on a clipboard

Most people have heard of sepsis and know that it can be dangerous, but many people don’t know exactly what sepsis is. Because sepsis is common and can lead to death if not treated promptly, we have decided to devote a blog post to the topic. Awareness of sepsis symptoms could save your life or the life of someone you love.

What is Sepsis?

Sepsis is the body’s systemic inflammatory response to an infection. In sepsis, the body’s response to an infection causes damage to the body’s own organs and tissues. If sepsis is not treated promptly (and sometimes even when it is), it can progress to septic shock. In septic shock, blood pressure drops dramatically, blood flow and oxygen to organs becomes insufficient, and systemic organ failure and death are possible.

More than 1.7 million people develop sepsis each year in the United States. Many do not survive, including 27% of people with sepsis in hospitals and 42% of those with sepsis in intensive care.

What Causes Sepsis?

Sepsis is caused by infection, most commonly a bacterial infection. However, a viral, fungal, or even parasitic infection can also lead to sepsis. The infection that causes sepsis can begin anywhere in the body, but some of the most common include:

  • Appendix (appendicitis) or abdominal cavity (peritonitis)
  • Bloodstream (bacteremia)
  • Gallbladder
  • Liver
  • Lungs
  • Digestive system
  • Brain or spinal cord
  • Connective tissue of the skin (cellulitis)
  • Urinary tract, including kidneys and bladder
  • Skin

Often, sepsis occurs in patients who are hospitalized, especially those in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Bacteria can be introduced into the body through openings in the skin made with intravenous catheters, or with a catheter used to drain urine. A surgical patient’s wound may also become infected, leading to sepsis. Sepsis is sometimes, but not always, the result of medical malpractice, such as when a medical provider fails to properly sterilize equipment.

What are Risk Factors for Sepsis?

Anyone can become septic. However, there are certain factors that put one at greater risk. Risk factors for sepsis include:

  • Being very old or very young
  • Being immunocompromised
  • Recent use of antibiotics or corticosteroids
  • Having diabetes
  • Having chronic liver or kidney disease
  • Long hospital stays, particularly in the ICU
  • Use of invasive medical devices such as IVs, breathing tubes, or urinary catheters

What are Common Symptoms of Sepsis?

A patient with sepsis commonly experiences an elevated heart rate, fever (or hypothermia), chills, clammy skin, hyperventilation, or shortness of breath. Patients may also be drowsy or less responsive than usual. If someone is exhibiting these symptoms, particularly if they also seem confused or disoriented, they should be evaluated for sepsis immediately.

How is Sepsis Diagnosed?

In addition to a likely or confirmed infection, a diagnosis of sepsis requires three things:

  • Systolic blood pressure of 100 mm Hg or lower. Systolic blood pressure is the first number in the blood pressure reading.
  • Respiratory rate of 22 breaths per minute or higher
  • Change in mental status; confusion or disorientation

A white blood cell count that is high or low, a low platelet count, blood clotting issues, electrolyte imbalances, or abnormal liver or kidney function can also help doctors diagnose sepsis. If doctors do not know where the patient’s infection originated, they may perform imaging tests to learn more.

Septic shock is diagnosed if the patient needs medicine to keep systolic blood pressure at or above 65, and if there are high levels of lactic acid in the blood, known as acidosis.

How is Sepsis Treated?

The earlier and more aggressively sepsis is treated, the better the patient’s chance of recovery. Patients are commonly treated with broad spectrum antibiotics to try to wipe out the infection as quickly as possible. Doctors may order more targeted antibiotics when lab tests indicate the particular bacteria causing the infection.

Patients are usually placed on IV fluids and may be given medications called vasopressors, which constrict blood vessels, to keep their blood pressure at appropriate levels. Under some circumstances, insulin may be ordered to keep blood sugar levels stable. Doctors may also order painkillers, sedatives, or low doses of corticosteroids.

Sepsis and Medical Malpractice

As noted above, sepsis can be the result of medical malpractice: improperly sterilized instruments, nurses and doctors who do not properly clean their hands between patients, or other negligent practices that cause vulnerable patients to become infected.

Even if sepsis is not caused by medical malpractice, a doctor’s failure to promptly diagnose infection could cause sepsis and may constitute malpractice, especially since time is of the essence in the successful treatment of the condition.

If you have questions about whether you or a loved one were made ill or made worse by your medical providers, contact The Fraser Law Firm P.C. to schedule a consultation.

Categories: Medical Malpractice