A life-threatening condition you may never have heard of
Sepsis is a life-threatening complication caused by the body’s overwhelming response to infection, yet many people have never heard of it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would like to change that fact, and launched a major campaign this year to educate the public on the facts and symptoms of sepsis.
“Sepsis is a constellation of symptoms associated with infection,” said Kevin Mulroy, DO, a hospitalist at Cape Cod Hospital and senior vice president and chief quality officer at Cape Cod Healthcare. “What it means is that your body is reacting to an infection. It’s not just the infection that is causing the problem. It’s your body’s reaction to the infection.”
Sepsis feels like a very bad case of the flu, he said.
- Temperature greater than 101
- High heart rate
- Rapid breathing
- Clammy skin
- Extreme discomfort
- Confusion or disorientation
Seek Help Early
If you have any of the symptoms of sepsis, the best thing to do is go straight to your primary care doctor, said Dr. Mulroy. Primary care doctors are trained to diagnose and treat sepsis and will send you to the hospital if necessary.
“We don’t want anybody to ride it out at home,” he said. “That’s how you get in trouble. Go see your primary care doctor because time is really important. We know now that the earlier we treat it the better people are going to do.”
Doctors have criteria for sepsis that includes the presence of a primary infection and one of the other symptoms, Dr. Mulroy explained. Sepsis can be caused by any infection including viruses and fungi, but bacterial causes are the most common for patients who end up hospitalized.
Anyone with an untreated infection can get sepsis, but it is more common in those over the age of 65 or under the age of 1. People with compromised immune systems are also more at risk.
“People who are much older are more susceptible because their immune systems generally aren’t as effective as they were when they were younger ,” he said. “That may mean that they are more likely to get bacterial infections and they don’t have the ability to fight them off like they used to when they were younger. And, as you get a little bit older, your thirst reflex may not be as sensitive as when you were younger, which can lead to dehydration. The mainstay for fighting off sepsis is you have to stay hydrated.”
More Cases Than Are Reported
According to the CDC, the number of hospitalizations from sepsis more than doubled from 2000 to 2008. Sepsis is a contributing factor in up to half of all hospital deaths, but it isn’t always listed as the cause of death because it develops from complications of other illnesses like pneumonia, urinary tract infections or bowel infections.
A recent report from the CDC noted that sepsis is listed as the cause of death on death certificates an average of 146,000 to 159,000 times per year. But if you look at administrative claims data from hospitals, the number swells to up to as many as 381,000 deaths per year, the report showed.
Sepsis falls into three categories, Dr. Mulroy said. There is:
- Simple sepsis
- Severe sepsis
- Septic shock
For simple sepsis, the treatment is antibiotics and a lot of fluids.
People with severe sepsis require more aggressive treatment, but the first step is always an aggressive use of intravenous fluids to get the blood pressure back to normal and avoid organ damage. Those in septic shock are treated in the intensive care unit because there is a good chance their organs have begun to shut down.
“It can take a long time to recover,” Dr. Mulroy said. “But if we catch it early, then a lot of times we can turn it around in 48 hours.”