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Sepsis Questions and Answers

See Also – Sepsis Fact Sheets

What is sepsis?

Sepsis is a complication caused by the body’s overwhelming and life-threatening response to an infection, which can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death.

What causes sepsis?

Infections can lead to sepsis. An infection occurs when germs multiply, enter a person’s body and multiply, causing illness, and organ and tissue damage.  Certain infections and germs lead to sepsis most often. Sepsis is often associated with infections of the lungs (e.g., pneumonia), urinary tract (e.g., kidney), skin, and gut. Staphylococcus aureus (staph), Escherichia coli (E. coli), and some types of Streptococcus (strep) are common germs that can cause sepsis.

Are certain people with an infection more likely to get sepsis?

Anyone can develop sepsis from an infection, especially when not treated properly. However, sepsis occurs most often in people aged 65 years or older or less than 1 year, have weakened immune systems, or have chronic medical conditions (e.g., diabetes).

A CDC evaluation found more than 90% of adults and 70% of children who developed sepsis had a health condition that may have put them at risk.

Ask your doctor about your risk for getting sepsis. If you suspect sepsis, ask your doctor, "Could it be sepsis?"

If you have a chronic medical condition, ask your doctor about steps you can take to reduce your risk of infections, such as controlling blood sugar for persons with diabetes.

What are the signs and symptoms of sepsis?

Know the signs and symptoms of sepsis.There is no single sign or symptom of sepsis. It is, rather, a combination of symptoms. Since sepsis is the result of an infection, symptoms can include infection signs (diarrhea, vomiting, sore throat, etc.), as well as ANY of the symptoms below:
  • Shivering, fever, or very cold
  • Extreme pain or discomfort
  • Clammy or sweaty skin
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Short of breath
  • High heart rate

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What should I do if I think I have an infection that isn’t getting better or is getting worse?

  • Get immediate medical attention if you have any signs or symptoms of an infection or sepsis. This is a medical emergency.
  • If you are continuing to feel worse or not getting better from an infection, ask your doctor about sepsis.

If you or a family member are at higher risk for sepsis (older than 65, younger than 1 year, or with a weakened immune system, or a chronic medical condition) consider getting medical attention for any suspected infection.

How is sepsis diagnosed?

Doctors diagnose sepsis using a number of physical findings like fever, low blood pressure, increased heart rate, and increased breathing rate. They also do lab tests that check for signs of infection and organ damage.

Many of the symptoms of sepsis, such as fever and difficulty breathing, are the same as in other conditions, making sepsis hard to diagnose in its early stages.

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How is sepsis treated?

People with sepsis are treated in the hospital. Doctors try to treat the infection, keep the vital organs working, and prevent a drop in blood pressure.

Doctors treat sepsis with antibiotics as soon as possible. Many patients receive oxygen and intravenous (IV) fluids to maintain normal blood oxygen levels and blood pressure. Other types of treatment, such as assisting breathing with a machine or kidney dialysis, may be necessary. Sometimes surgery is required to remove tissue damaged by the infection.

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Are there any long-term effects of sepsis?

Many people who get sepsis recover completely and their lives return to normal. But some people may experience permanent organ damage. For example, in someone who already has kidney problems, sepsis can lead to kidney failure that requires lifelong dialysis.

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What can I do to prevent sepsis?What can you do to prevent sepsis?

  1. Get vaccinated against the flu, pneumonia, and any other infections that could lead to sepsis. Talk to your doctor for more information.
  2. Prevent infections that can lead to sepsis by:
    • Cleaning scrapes and wounds
    • Practicing good hygiene (e.g., hand washing)
  3. Know that time matters. If you have a severe infection, look for signs and symptoms like: shivering, fever, or very cold, extreme pain or discomfort, clammy or sweaty skin, confusion or disorientation, short of breath, and high heart rate.

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What is CDC doing to prevent sepsis?

CDC works to prevent infections that could lead to sepsis through support for:

  • Vaccination against diseases caused by germs like pneumococcus, meningococcus and influenza
  • Smoking cessation programs (because smokers have higher risk for pneumonia)
  • Strategies that prevent healthcare-associated infections
  • Research on prevention of infections that can cause sepsis
  • CDC has increased its support for projects specifically focused on sepsis prevention so that we can better understand the factors that contribute to sepsis, enhance prevention strategies, and save lives.

CDC also is collaborating with patient advocates and clinical partners to promote sepsis prevention and early recognition among healthcare providers, patients and their families.

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  1. NCHS Data Brief No. 62 June 2011 - Inpatient Care for Septicemia or Sepsis: A Challenge for Patients and Hospitals
  2. Wood KA, Angus DC. Pharmacoeconomic implications of new therapies in sepsis. PharmacoEconomics. 2004;22(14):895-906.