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Sepsis: The Silent Killer You’ve Never Heard Of

by   -  September 13th, 2017

Photo Credit: by roobcio, despositphotos.com
Photo Credit: by roobcio, despositphotos.com

When your body overreacts in a toxic response to an infection, it can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, an even death. This overreaction is called sepsis and happens when the normal functions of the immune system reverse. Rather than attacking the foreign invaders of an infection, it begins to turn on itself. Many people in the general public may have heard of sepsis by another name: blood poisoning.

Whatever name you know it by, sepsis is a serious medical condition that shouldn’t be taken lightly. In fact, in many cases, by the time the diagnosis has been made, sepsis can already be on the verge of being fatal. It’s also considered the most expensive American in-patient cost, running at nearly $24 billion each year. Severe sepsis affects more than 750K people in the United States alone and kills an estimated 25-50% of them. Worldwide, one-third of sepsis patients will die. Of the survivors, half will go on to continue with long-lasting post-sepsis syndrome and its effects. Early detection, diagnosis, and treatment is crucial to increase the odds favorably.

Who’s Most Susceptible

Most physicians will say the concern of sepsis is most prevalent for both very young and very old. However, those with weakened immune systems and other chronic infections are also susceptible (namely cancer and diabetes). The top cause of most sepsis cases stems from pneumonia—but any infection can be the trigger point. Even something as minimal as a papercut, although rarer.

For the elderly, sepsis becomes a concern because as we age, our immune systems become far less effective at fighting infections. This in turn means that any infection we develop can become more severe than in the past—and in turn, increasing our risk of sepsis.


If your immune system is already compromised by diabetes, cancer, HIV, a urinary tract infection, or something else like pneumonia, or influenza staying on top of preventions can be key to avoiding sepsis all together. This is the obvious road most people will want to take. In order to do that, there are a number of ways you can take care of yourself and prevent sepsis from occurring in the first place. These include:

• Stay ahead of your conditions

• Take antibiotics as prescribed

• Get recommended vaccines

• Practice good hygiene

• Keep cuts clean until fully healed

• Seek immediate medical attention if conditions worsen


Sepsis can progress very quickly, so in order to stave off a severe diagnosis, which can turn deadly—early identification is key. There are a number of symptoms to watch out for, but if you only remember one thing, keep in mind the six that make up the acronym for SEPSIS:

S – Shivering

E – Extreme Pain

P – Pale skin

S – Super sleepy

I – “I feel like I might die.”

S – Shortness of breath

To get more specific, some of the symptoms will be combined with others and each should be treated as a medical emergency if they emerge. Particularly with those who have a compromised immune system. Let’s take a closer look:

• Fever, shivering, or feeling very cold

• Elevated white blood cell counts

• Blood pressure 10-20% lower than normal

• Confusion or disorientation

• Sleepiness and difficult to awaken

• Shortness of breath

• Signs of organ dysfunction

• High heart rate

• Extreme pain or discomfort

• Clammy or sweaty skin

• Pale or discolored skin

• Hypothermia (lower body temperature than normal)

• High blood glucose levels (without diabetes)

• Edema

• Low urine output

• High bilirubin levels (jaundice)

Septic shock is the most severe level of sepsis and is diagnosed after all of the above symptoms have been found, as well as blood pressure dropping to dangerously low levels.

As you can see, it’s important to do all that you can to not only prevent developing sepsis in the first place, but to notice the signs as quickly as possible should it arise.

Getting Help

Act fast. Identification and aggressive treatment play a critical role in the outcome of any patient who develops sepsis. A study from 2006 concluded the risk of death increases by 7.6% with every hour that passes without treatment. If you develop an infection that is not going away or is getting worse, see your doctor right away. It’s important to identify and treat it as soon as possible, and before it develops into a more severe, and sometimes fatal, variation.

Early stages of sepsis treatment include antibiotics such as Zithromax, intravenous fluids, and close monitoring. In some cases, your doctor may prescribe antiviral medications.

For patients who have gone into septic shock, these are the treatments and medications you might expect:

• Arterial lines

• Central venous catheter


• Kidney dialysis

• Mechanical ventilation

• Oxygen

• PreSep(tm) catheter

• Pulmonary artery catheter

• Vasopressors

Of those who do develop severe sepsis, many will have long-lasting effects from ongoing physical, psychological, and cognitive issues—while others may recover completely. It all depends on the kind of treatment they receive and the swiftness of action taken by their care team.

Unfortunately, surviving sepsis isn’t the end for many people. Of those survive, up to half of all severe sepsis patients can develop Post-Sepsis Syndrome (PSS). Symptoms include:


• Insomnia

• Nightmares

• Vivid hallucinations

• Panic attacks

• Disabling muscle and joint pain

• Extreme fatigue

• Poor concentration

• Decreased mental function

• Chronic pain and fatigue

• Organ dysfunctions

• Amputations

• Loss of self-esteem

Ultimately, knowing the ways to prevent—as well as the signs and swiftness in the stages of sepsis can keep you and those you love safe. It cannot be stressed enough, if you have an infection and are seeing some of the symptoms listed above—seek immediate medical attention. It’s not worth “waiting it out.” Get diagnosed and have peace of mind sooner rather than later. Your life depends on it.


Carissa Andrews is a freelance writer, graphic designer, and author. You can learn more about her at her website.

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