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Sepsis Questions and Answers

What is sepsis?

Sepsis is an illness that affects all parts of the body that can happen in response to an infection and can quickly become life-threatening.

In severe cases of sepsis, one or more organs fail. In the worst cases, sepsis causes the blood pressure to drop and the heart to weaken, leading to septic shock. Once this happens, multiple organs may quickly fail and the patient can die.

Sepsis is a serious illness that is very difficult to predict, diagnose, and treat. Patients who develop sepsis have an increased risk of complications and death and face higher healthcare costs and longer treatment.

What causes sepsis?

Sepsis is a response to an infection. When you get an infection, your immune system releases chemicals into your blood to fight the infection. The chemicals sometimes cause body-wide inflammation, which can lead to blood clots and leaky blood vessels. This impairs blood flow, which damages the body’s organs by depriving them of nutrients and oxygen.

Different types of infections can lead to sepsis, including infections of the skin, lungs, urinary tract, abdomen (such as appendicitis), or other part of the body. Healthcare-associated infections, including pneumonia, central line-associated bloodstream infections, catheter-associated urinary tract infections, and surgical site infections can sometimes lead to sepsis. MRSA infections of the skin and soft tissue can also lead to sepsis.

Sepsis infected blood cell

Who gets sepsis?

Anyone can get sepsis, but the risk is higher in:

  • people with weakened immune systems
  • infants and children
  • elderly people
  • people with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, AIDS, cancer, and kidney or liver disease
  • people suffering from a severe burn or physical trauma

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How many people get sepsis?

CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics estimates that, based upon information collected for billing purposes, the number of times people were in the hospital with sepsis or septicemia (another word for sepsis) increased from 621,000 in the year 2000 to 1,141,000 in 2008.1

Between 28 and 50 percent of people who get sepsis die.2

The number of cases of sepsis each year has been going up in the United States. This could be because of the following reasons:

  • the population is aging
  • people have more chronic illnesses
  • people are getting more invasive procedures, immunosuppressive drugs, chemotherapy, and organ transplants
  • increasing antibiotic resistance
  • increasing awareness and tracking of sepsis

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What are the symptoms of sepsis?

Common symptoms of sepsis are fever, chills, rapid breathing and heart rate, rash, confusion, and disorientation.

Many of these symptoms, 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 diagnosed?

Doctors diagnose sepsis using a number of physical findings like fever, increased heart rate, and increased respiratory rate. They also do lab tests that check for signs of infection.

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How is sepsis treated?

People with sepsis are usually treated in hospital intensive care units. Doctors try to treat the infection, sustain the vital organs and prevent a drop in blood pressure.

Doctors prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection. Many patients receive oxygen and intravenous (IV) fluids to maintain normal blood oxygen levels and blood pressure.

Other types of treatment, such as mechanical ventilation or kidney dialysis, may be necessary. Sometimes surgery is required to clear a local site of infection.

Many other drugs, including vasopressors and corticosteroids, may be used to treat sepsis or to revive those who have gone into septic shock.

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Are there any long-term effects of sepsis?

Many people who survive severe sepsis recover completely and their lives return to normal. But some people, especially those who had pre-existing chronic diseases, may experience permanent organ damage. For example, in someone who already has kidney impairment, sepsis can lead to kidney failure that requires lifelong dialysis.

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What is CDC doing to prevent sepsis?

CDC works to prevent infections that could lead to sepsis through promotion of vaccination for diseases like pneumococcus and meningitis, smoking cessation programs to prevent community-acquired pneumonia, and strategies to prevent healthcare-associated infections. Recently, CDC has begun 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 has worked with patient advocacy and consumer groups to educate the public, raise awareness and promote the prevention of healthcare-associated infections. CDC is working to implement strategies to increase sepsis awareness among the public, healthcare providers, and healthcare facilities.

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References:

    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.
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