Health Library Explorer
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z A-Z Listings Contact Us

Understanding Sepsis

Sepsis is a life-threatening problem that affects your organs. It happens in response to an overwhelming infection. It is most often caused by bacteria. It ranges in severity from sepsis to severe sepsis to septic shock. All forms of sepsis are a medical emergency. They need to be treated right away.

What is sepsis?

Sepsis is when the body reacts to an infection with a severe inflammatory response. It can be caused by bacteria, fungus, or a virus. Sepsis can cause many kinds of problems throughout the body. It can lead to severe low blood pressure (shock) and organ failure. This can lead to death if not treated.

Sepsis is most common in:

  • Adults 65 years and older

  • Patients in intensive care units (ICUs). Or people who have devices such as central venous lines or urinary catheters.

  • People with an infection such as a blood infection (bacteremia), pneumonia, meningitis, or a urinary tract infection

  • People who have an illness such as some cancers, diabetes, or long-term kidney or liver disease

  • People with immune system diseases such as HIV or AIDS. Or people who have had an organ transplant or, bone marrow or stem cell transplant, or those taking medicines that affect the immune system.

  • People being treated with chemotherapy medicines, steroid medicines, or radiation

  • People with severe injuries, including burns

Symptoms of sepsis

Symptoms of sepsis can include:

  • Chills and shaking

  • High fever

  • Low blood pressure

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Rapid breathing

  • Shortness of breath

  • Severe nausea or uncontrolled vomiting

  • Confusion and possibly coma

  • Dizziness

  • Decreased urination

  • Severe pain, including in the back or joints 

Diagnosing sepsis

If your healthcare provider thinks you may have sepsis, you will be admitted to the hospital and given tests. You may have blood and urine tests. You may also have cultures and other tests to look for the cause of the sepsis. These tests look for bacteria, viruses, and fungus. Other tests may check for problems with your organs. You may also have X-rays or other imaging tests. These may be done to look at your organs to find the source of infection.

Treating sepsis

All forms of sepsis are medical emergencies. They must be treated in the hospital, often in the intensive care unit (ICU). If you have sepsis, your healthcare provider will give you antibiotics through a thin, flexible tube (IV) put into a vein in your arm or another location in your body. You will also be given a large amount of fluids through the IV. You may also be given nutrition or other medicines through your IV. Your healthcare provider will talk with you about other treatments you may need. These may include using an oxygen mask or a ventilator to help with breathing. This may also include medicine that raises your blood pressure. You might need dialysis for kidney failure. Treatment may last at least 7 to 10 days. . Even with aggressive treatment, sepsis can be fatal.

Online Medical Reviewer: Barry Zingman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Louise Cunningham RN BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2021
© 2000-2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
Contact Our Health Professionals
Follow Us
The health content and information on this site is made possible through the generous support of the Haspel Education Fund.
StayWell Disclaimer