What You Need to Know About Sepsis

On March 29, actress Patty Duke, age 69, died of sepsis related to ruptured intestine, which is a hole in the wall of the intestine.

When there is a hole in the intestine, it causes the contents to leak into the abdominal cavity. This can cause the body-wide infection called sepsis.

Sepsis is the body’s overwhelming and life-threatening response to an infection that can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death.


What are the symptoms of sepsis?

There is no single sign or symptom of sepsis. It is, rather, a combination of symptoms. Since sepsis is the result of an infection, symptoms can include infection signs (diarrhea, vomiting, sore throat, etc.), as well as ANY of the symptoms below:

S—Shivering, fever, or very cold
E—Extreme pain or general discomfort ("worst ever")
P—Pale or discolored skin
S—Sleepy, difficult to rouse, confused
I—"I feel like I might die"
S—Short of breath


When can you get sepsis?

Sepsis can occur to anyone, at any time, from any type of infection, and can affect any part of the body. It can occur even after a minor infection.


What causes sepsis?

Any type of infection that is anywhere in your body can cause sepsis, including infections of the skin, lungs (such as pneumonia), urinary tract, abdomen (such as appendicitis), or other part of the body. An infection occurs when germs enter a person’s body and multiply, causing illness, and organ and tissue damage.


Who gets sepsis?

Anyone can get sepsis as a bad outcome from an infection, but the risk is higher in:

  • People with weakened immune systems
  • Babies and very young children
  • Elderly people
  • People with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, AIDS, cancer, and kidney or liver disease
  • People suffering from a severe burn or wound

What should I do if I think I have an infection or sepsis?

  • Call your doctor or go to the emergency room immediately if you have any signs or symptoms of an infection or sepsis. Sepsis is a medical emergency.
  • It’s important that you say, “I AM CONCERNED ABOUT SEPSIS.”
  • If you are continuing to feel worse or not getting better in the days after surgery, ask your doctor about sepsis. Sepsis is a common complication of people hospitalized for other reasons.

How is sepsis diagnosed?

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

Many of the symptoms of sepsis, such as fever and difficulty breathing, are the same as in other conditions, making sepsis hard to diagnose in its early stages.

How is sepsis treated?

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

Doctors treat sepsis with antibiotics as soon as possible. Many patients receive oxygen and intravenous (IV) fluids to maintain normal blood oxygen levels and blood pressure. Other types of treatment, such as assisting breathing with a machine or kidney dialysis, may be necessary. Sometimes surgery is required to remove tissue damaged by the infection.

(sources: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention: Sepsis Q&A; Medline Plus: Gastrointestinal Perforation)