The human body knows what to do when you contract a virus or an infection from bacteria, fungus or parasites – it works hard to eliminate the invasion by sending white blood cells to the infection site. While you may experience unpleasant symptoms like fever, stuffiness or aches, these are signs that your body is doing what it needs to do.
Occasionally, the body’s response kicks into overdrive, suddenly turning on itself instead of the invaders, according to the Sepsis Alliance. This creates a toxic, life-threatening response called sepsis, and it is a medical emergency which requires immediate treatment.
In September, which is Sepsis Awareness Month, medical providers want to remind patients that sepsis is an emergency that can lead to severe conditions including septic shock, tissue damage, organ failure, amputations or death.
The main things to remember: Any kind of infection can lead to sepsis – including the flu virus, a urinary tract infection, digestive tract infection, cellulitis or an infected wound. And most importantly, never hesitate to get help.
“Sepsis can occur to anyone, though certain people are at higher risk,” said Dr. Mbonu Ikezuagu, ThedaCare Vice President and Chief Quality Officer. “Infants, young children, elderly people, those who have a weakened immune system or chronic medical conditions, are at a higher risk of an infection turning into sepsis.”
Chronic medical conditions that put people at a greater risk of developing sepsis include those with cancer, diabetes, heart, liver or kidney disease, diabetes and lung conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Those who recently survived sepsis or were hospitalized with severe illness are at greater risk as well.
Prevention is always the best. People with chronic medical conditions should manage these conditions as best as possible to prevent infections, and they should wear masks in crowded places if they have compromised immunity. And everyone should wash hands frequently, keep cuts clean and covered until healed, and help prevent infections by staying updated on inoculations including the flu shot and the COVID-19 vaccines and boosters.
“Sepsis is a medical emergency such as heart attack or stroke, and can turn deadly fast,” said Dr. Ikezuagu. “If you notice symptoms like fever, rapid heartbeat, confusion, extreme pain, or difficulty breathing, don’t wait. We have the best chance of helping you survive the sooner you come in for treatment.”
Sepsis is the greatest cost of hospitalization in the U.S., costing health care systems about $62 billion each year. Many sepsis survivors can also continue to face additional costs following discharge, according to the Sepsis Alliance. Up to half of sepsis survivors experience post-sepsis syndrome, which can include trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, nightmares and panic attacks, or disabling muscle and joint pain.
ThedaCare providers have set up special work teams to improve and accelerate care for people with sepsis, and to offer more patient education to help avoid re-infection at home.
Seek Treatment Immediately
The symptoms for sepsis vary, and they may manifest differently in children than in adults. In general, common signs include:
- Changes in cognitive status, which might include confusion or extreme sleepiness.
- Shortness of breath and/or lightheadedness.
- Changes in body temperature, either higher or lower than normal.
- Shivering and/or sweating.
A patient might also experience a worsening of symptoms associated with the initial infection, such as a worsening of a cough from a virus or more painful urinary symptoms from a urinary tract infection.
Infants and young children who are experiencing sepsis may begin to avoid eye contact, become irritable or lethargic, develop jaundice or a rash, or have a fever that exceeds 102 degrees Fahrenheit. More than 75,000 children develop sepsis each year in the United States, with 7,000 dying of the infections—more than the number who die from cancers, the Sepsis Alliance said. About a third of those who survive experience cognitive impacts.
Septic shock, which is a progression of sepsis and increases the risk of death, might include
symptoms such as trouble staying awake or trouble standing up, as well as extreme confusion.
“The main treatment for sepsis includes intravenous antibiotics as soon as possible after diagnosis,” Dr. Ikezuagu said. “If you are concerned about or suspect sepsis, never hesitate to tell your provider immediately.”
Dr. Ikezuagu added that where a person seeks care for an infection depends on symptoms. If someone has milder symptoms, they can call their primary care provider’s office or visit an urgent or walk-in care site. Sepsis shares symptoms common with other conditions, so it’s important to look at all the symptoms and risk factors together, Dr. Ikezuagu said.
If someone is experiencing severe symptoms, including difficulty breathing, extreme lethargy and an altered mental state, call 911 or go to the emergency department.
Early, thorough treatment with medication and other interventions raises the likelihood of recovery. With increased awareness around sepsis, Dr. Ikezuagu hopes to see better outcomes.
For more than 110 years, ThedaCare® has been committed to improving the health and well-being of the communities it serves in Northeast and Central Wisconsin. The organization delivers care to more than 650,000 residents in 17 counties and employs approximately 7,000 providers and team members. ThedaCare has 180 points of care, including eight hospitals. As an organization committed to being a leader in Population Health, team members are dedicated to empowering people to live their unique, best lives. ThedaCare also partners with communities to understand needs, finding solutions together, and encouraging health awareness and action. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts about a patient’s care. ThedaCare is proud to partner with Children’s Wisconsin and Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin health network to enhance convenient access to the most advanced levels of specialty care. ThedaCare is a not-for-profit health system with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs, as well as primary care.