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Patient education: Sepsis in adults (The Basics)

Patient education: Sepsis in adults (The Basics)

What is sepsis? — Sepsis is a serious illness that happens when an infection travels through the whole body. Sepsis can happen in anyone, but it is more likely to happen in people who:

Are older or bedridden

Are staying in the hospital or have had recent surgery

Have thin tubes such as catheters or IVs in their body

Have a weak infection-fighting system (for example because they are being treated for cancer)

Sepsis can come from an infection in any part of the body, but it is most often linked to infections in the:

Lungs (called pneumonia)

Kidneys (called urinary tract infection)

Skin (called cellulitis)

Bowel (called colitis) – Sepsis caused by colitis is especially likely after a course of antibiotics.

Sepsis needs to be treated quickly. If it is not treated, it can become severe. When this happens, it is called "septic shock." Septic shock is life-threatening.

What are the symptoms of sepsis? — Symptoms of sepsis can include:

A fever – But some people get a low body temperature instead of a fever.


Very fast breathing

Very fast heartbeat

Symptoms of severe sepsis can include:

Acting confused or feeling lightheaded or dizzy

Trouble breathing

Cool, clammy skin or red, flushed skin

Poor appetite

Urinating much less than usual

Different types of skin rashes – One type is a lacy, purple rash that is usually on the legs, but can also be on the arms. Another rash looks like red or purple spots on the skin that do not go away when touched. These spots are usually on the chest and legs, but can also be in other areas.

Belly pain or cramping with severe diarrhea

Other problems with the heart, kidneys, or brain

People who have septic shock have many of the symptoms listed above, plus their blood pressure gets low and they sometimes pass out.

Should I see the doctor or nurse? — Yes, as soon as possible. Sepsis can develop when you are at home or in the hospital. In either case, you (or the person with you) should call the doctor or nurse if you:

Have a fever and chills, and have any of the symptoms above or look very sick

Have had a recent surgery or hospital stay, and now are sick or have an infection

If your doctor or nurse is unable to see you immediately, or you can't reach them, you should go to the nearest emergency department.

Will I have tests? — Probably. Your doctor will learn about your symptoms and do an exam. They will likely do tests to look for an infection, see if the infection has spread to your blood, and see how serious your condition is. These tests can include:

Blood tests, including tests called "blood cultures"

Urine tests

Lab tests – For example, if you are coughing up mucus, your doctor can test your mucus for bacteria.

X-rays or other imaging tests – Imaging tests create pictures of the inside of your body. These might include a test to look at your heart, called an echocardiogram (or "echo" for short).

How is sepsis treated? — Sepsis and septic shock are usually treated in the hospital with:

Antibiotics that go in your vein through a thin tube called an "IV"

Fluids that go in your vein through an IV

Other medicines to treat your condition – For example, if your blood pressure is too low, your doctor can give you medicine to raise it.

If an IV or catheter in your body is causing your sepsis, your doctor might take the IV or catheter out.

Some people are also treated with surgery. If you have a severe infection of the skin or tissue under the skin, your doctor might do surgery to remove the infected areas.

Some people with severe septic shock might need a blood transfusion. A blood transfusion is when a person gets blood that was given (donated) by another person. But this is rare.

Can sepsis be prevented? — You can help prevent sepsis by:

Getting treated right away if you get an infection

Avoiding infections – One way to avoid infections is to get the vaccines your doctor recommends. Vaccines can prevent serious or deadly infections. If you have a child, make sure they get the recommended vaccines, too. It can also help to try to avoid being around people who have flu or cold symptoms, and to wash your hands frequently.

More on this topic

Patient education: Fever in children (The Basics)
Patient education: Splenectomy (The Basics)

Patient education: Fever in children (Beyond the Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Jan 02, 2023.
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