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Understanding Sepsis

Sepsis is a severe response the body has to an infection. It is most often caused by bacteria. It is also known as septicemia, or systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS). Sepsis is a medical emergency. It needs 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 around the body. It can lead severe low blood pressure (shock) and organ failure. This can lead to death if not treated.

Sepsis is most common in:

  • Infants and older adults

  • People with an infection such as pneumonia, meningitis, or a urinary tract infection

  • People who have an illness such as cancer, AIDS, or diabetes

  • People being treated with chemotherapy medications or radiation

  • People who have had a transplant

Symptoms of sepsis

Symptoms of sepsis can include:

  • Chills and shaking

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Rapid breathing

  • Shortness of breath

  • Severe nausea or uncontrolled vomiting

  • Confusion

  • Dizziness

  • Decreased urination

  • Severe pain, including in the back or joints 

Diagnosing sepsis

If your health care provider thinks you may have sepsis, you will be given tests. You may have blood and urine tests. These are done to look for bacteria, viruses, or fungus. You may also have X-rays or other imaging tests. These may be done to look at your organs to locate the source of infection.

Treating sepsis

If you have sepsis, your health care provider will give you antibiotics through a thin, flexible tube put into a vein in your arm (IV). You will also be given fluids through the IV. You may also be given nutrition or other medications through your IV. Your health care 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. Treatment may last at least 7 to 10 days. Sepsis must be treated in the hospital.

© 2000-2017 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.