You’re more likely to be stricken by this condition than by a heart attack. It kills more people than cancer. Between 28 and 50% of people diagnosed with this condition will die. Known colloquially as “blood poisoning,” and often referred to as a “flesh-eating disease,” sepsis is the primary cause of death from infection worldwide.
Sepsis: Difficult to Identify, Difficult to Treat
More than a million people in the United States alone are infected with sepsis each year. Of those, over 250,000 will die from the infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Part of the reason sepsis can be so deadly is that it’s difficult to identify and difficult to treat. It occurs when chemicals released into the bloodstream to combat a local infection spread throughout the body and trigger widespread inflammation. Sepsis progresses quickly, and can result in damage to multiple organ systems and, if unchecked, death.
Sepsis can affect anyone, but as with many life-threating illnesses, the most vulnerable are…
- Newborn infants
- Young children
- The elderly
- Individuals with suppressed immune systems
How Sepsis Spreads
Sepsis progresses through three distinct phases. The first phase begins with an infection, which can stem from something as minor as a scraped knee. Whenever your body develops an infection, your immune system responds by producing chemicals to fight that infection. Instead of directly targeting a local infection, however, those chemicals sometimes enter your bloodstream and spread throughout your body, causing pervasive inflammation.
In phase two, the marauding chemicals begin to damage tissues in the liver … kidneys … heart … and other organs. Blood clots begin to form, and the affected organs deteriorate. In severe cases, this results in organ failure.
In the third and final phase—also known as septic shock—blood pressure bottoms out. This can cause…
- Heart failure
- Respiratory failure
- Failure of other organs
Early Warning Signs of Sepsis
- Loss of appetite
- Fever and chills
- Unusual thirst
- Strained and/or rapid breathing
- Elevated heart rate
- Low blood pressure
If you or a loved one display any of the symptoms listed above, you may be suffering sepsis. Sepsis should be treated as a medical emergency on the level of a heart attack or major car crash. Medically intensive care is the only way to treat sepsis, and the longer it takes to obtain that care, the more likely it is that a patient will die.
“Contact a healthcare provider and say, ‘I think I have an infection and it’s really gotten worse, and I think it’s possible I could have sepsis,” advises Anthony Fiore, M.D., of the CDC’s Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion and author of a recent report on sepsis. If you can’t reach your regular healthcare provider, or if you feel very sick, Fiore suggests heading to the emergency room. “It’s not something you sit on,” he says.