What you need to know about sepsis

December 1, 2023 Providence Health Team


In this article:

  • Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that affects millions of people around the world each year.

  • Shelley Schoepflin Sanders, M.D., F.A.C.P., an internal medicine physician at Providence, shares what people need to know about sepsis, severe sepsis and septic shock.

  • Understanding the symptoms of sepsis and early detection of the condition is the key to successful sepsis treatment.

What you need to know about sepsis

You are probably familiar with heart attacks, the signs to watch for and when to call 911. But do you know about the symptoms of sepsis, an equally serious and often deadly condition that can strike anywhere in your body?

Shelley Schoepflin Sanders, M.D., F.A.C.P., shares more about what everyone needs to know about sepsis, a life-threatening infection that affects millions of people around the world each year.

Providence Oregon | Getting Serious About Sepsis from Providence on Vimeo.

What is sepsis?

Sepsis, also known as septicemia or blood poisoning, has three stages: sepsis, severe sepsis and septic shock. The condition typically begins as a minor infection somewhere in your body, such as your lungs, bladder or skin. At some point in the process of trying to fight the initial infection, your body’s immune system and inflammatory response become confused and spiral into sepsis, a systemic condition that affects your entire body, leading to extremely low blood pressure and even organ failure. Sepsis is a medical emergency and requires immediate treatment at a qualified medical center.

“With sepsis, it’s as if your immune system is attacking the whole body as it tries to attack the bacteria,” says Dr. Sanders. “The condition can quickly progress to severe sepsis or even septic shock. It’s incredibly serious and often requires treatment in the intensive care unit.”

Who is at risk?

Sepsis most often affects young children, the elderly and people with a weakened immune system or poorly managed health conditions, including diabetes, asthma, and heart, liver or kidney disease. Along with heart attack and stroke, sepsis is a leading cause of hospital death and hospital readmissions. Sepsis is also the primary cause of death for many patients with cancer or chronic medical conditions including heart failure.

“Unfortunately, sepsis also frequently targets our most vulnerable populations, including Black, Asian, Native American, Native Pacific Islander and Spanish-speaking patients,” says Dr. Sanders.

Kidney infections, urinary tract infections, pneumonia or skin infections are the most likely to progress into sepsis, severe sepsis or septic shock. The risk of sepsis is higher for people who have recently been discharged from a hospital.

What are the symptoms of sepsis?

Early warning signs of sepsis include confusion, a fall or loss of appetite along with other symptoms that include:

  • Low blood pressure.
  • High or low body temperature.
  • Fast heart rate.
  • Nausea and vomiting.

When monitoring a patient’s vital signs for signs of sepsis, Dr. Sanders uses the rule of three 100s:

  • Body temperature over 100 degrees.
  • A heart rate faster than 100 beats per minute.
  • Systolic blood pressure below 100.

Sepsis causes your blood pressure to plummet, which is a sign of shock. This reduced blood flow to your tissues and organs allows toxins to build up, which can lead to organ failure and death. Dr. Sanders explains that with a heart attack, your heart doesn’t get enough blood. With severe sepsis or septic shock, your whole body is deprived of blood, which can damage not just your heart but also your liver, kidneys, brain and other organs.

“If your grandmother has a fever and no other symptoms, it’s something to address with her primary care physician,” says Dr. Sanders. “But if she has a fever along with confusion and was recently discharged from the hospital, it could be sepsis, and a trip to the emergency room is in order.”

Preventing sepsis

People who have sepsis are very sick and need immediate care. The condition can be treated successfully when it’s detected early and patients receive medical care that includes intravenous antibiotics along with management of blood pressure and oxygen levels. However, the condition is easily confused with other diseases and is often misdiagnosed.

If you have a medical condition that you are struggling to manage, work with your primary care physician to control your symptoms. If you have recently been discharged from a hospital, be vigilant about following your discharge instructions and carefully monitor any incision or IV sites for infection.

“If sepsis isn’t treated early, it can turn into a cascade of inflammatory symptoms and require ICU care with life support,” says Dr. Sanders. “Working with your primary care doctor to manage your existing health conditions, along with early detection and intervention for sepsis, are the key.”

Contributing caregiver

Shelley Schoepflin Sanders, M.D., F.A.C.P., is an internal medicine physician at Providence St. Joseph Health.

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Related resources

How to choose between the ER, urgent care and your PCP

Have you seen your doctor for a well check lately?

KPTV Health Watch: Sepsis Awareness with Dr. Sanders

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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