Sepsis is a medical emergency that occurs when the body has an extreme reaction to an infection, and it can happen to anyone. Because sepsis can cause tissue damage, organ failure, and even death, a quick response and timely treatment is critical. Read on to learn more about how to protect yourself and your loved ones with important information from local expert, Dr. Anuj Wadhwa of Erlanger Community Health Center.
What is Sepsis?
Sepsis is a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when the bodily processes that exist to fight infections turn on the body itself, damaging tissues and organs in the process. Bacterial infections are the most common cause, but any infection, including viral and fungal infections, can lead to sepsis.
Sepsis can progress rapidly to severe sepsis, meaning that organs have suffered damage due to inflammation in the body. If it progresses further, a patient may go into septic shock, which is characterized by a dangerous drop in blood pressure that greatly increases the risk of death. Since sepsis can progress rapidly, it is critical to seek medical treatment as soon as possible. “If we diagnose and treat early, we can stop infections from snowballing from a simple localized infection to sepsis, which affects the entire body,” says Dr. Wadhwa.
Signs and Symptoms of Sepsis
Because successfully treating sepsis can be a race against the clock, it is important to be aware of the warning signs and symptoms. “Some of the signs of sepsis depend on where the infection is located – for instance, urinary burning or frequency for a urinary tract infection; cough or shortness of breath for a lung infection; and a wound or swollen, red, painful skin or drainage for a skin infection,” Dr. Wadhwa explains. However, there are some signs and symptoms that occur regardless of where the initial infection is located, such as:
Treatment for sepsis varies from patient to patient, but typically involves antibiotics and taking steps to maintain blood flow to organs. In some cases, surgery to remove damaged tissue may also be necessary.
The source of the initial infection is the first factor to consider when treating sepsis, as different antibiotics will be used for different types of infections. “Another factor would be the patient’s underlying health status and conditions, such as being on chronic steroids or medications that affect immunity for organ transplant, having diabetes, or having underlying chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD),” says Dr. Wadhwa.
Depending on how sick a patient is, Dr. Wadhwa says additional treatments may involve IV fluids or medications to raise blood pressure, supplemental oxygen, use of a ventilator to get rid of carbon dioxide, insulin to control high blood sugar, high dose steroids if a patient has adrenal problems, and blood-clotting medications if bleeding occurs as a result of the infection. “Bottom line,” Dr. Wadhwa explains, “Every patient is different, and their provider is the best person to guide them on the right thing to do for their individual needs.”
Who is at Risk for Sepsis?
According to the CDC, at least 1.7 million adults in America develop sepsis each year, and roughly 270,000 of those cases are fatal. Anyone can develop sepsis, and any infection can turn into sepsis, but there are certain groups who are at a higher risk.
- Adults age 65 and older
- Children younger than 12 months
- People who have recently been hospitalized or had a severe illness
- People with weakened immune systems
- People who have previously developed sepsis
- People with chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, lung disease, kidney disease, or cancer
How Can I Reduce the Risk of Sepsis?
Sepsis itself is not contagious, but some of the infections that can lead to sepsis are, so the best way to protect yourself is to reduce the risk of infection. Here are five helpful tips for preventing different types of infections.
- Prevent the spread of infectious illnesses. Taking precautions such as isolation, wearing face masks, staying up to date on vaccines, and practicing good personal hygiene are excellent ways to limit the spread of viral infections like the flu and COVID-19 as well as bacterial infections like strep throat that can be transmitted from person to person.
- Use antibiotics properly. It is important to always follow your doctor’s instructions for taking an antibiotic, including what time of day they should be taken and whether or not they should be taken with food. The full course of antibiotics should always be finished unless your physician instructs you to stop taking them. Often, symptoms subside before all bacteria have been eliminated, and they can quickly make a resurgence. Additionally, you should never take antibiotics that were not prescribed to you or share your antibiotics with someone else. Dr. Wadhwa warns that taking antibiotics when they are not an appropriate treatment, like in cases of viral infections, increases the risk of developing antibiotic-resistant illnesses.
- Properly care for any wounds. From paper cuts to surgical incisions, it is important to practice proper wound care. Cleaning wounds as soon as possible after they happen and then keeping them clean and covered as they heal greatly reduces the risk of infection. Additionally, it is important to monitor wounds as they heal and seek treatment at the first sign of infection.
- Seek treatment for fungal or parasitic infections. Infections like these must be treated with specific medications, so proper evaluation and treatment by a medical professional is your best bet.
- Properly manage chronic conditions. Some chronic illnesses can increase your risk of infections, so it is always important to keep up with any medications and monitor symptoms. “Keep chronic health issues like diabetes, for example, under good control. Poor immunity associated with diabetes causes infections to become out of control,” Dr. Wadhwa says.
It is certainly helpful for patients to take steps to reduce the risk of sepsis; Dr. Wadhwa says that both patients and their physicians should work together and share responsibility for preventing the condition. Dr. Wadhwa explains, “Shared responsibilities ensure that patients will seek help early and follow their providers’ instructions. Shared responsibilities also ensure that providers will treat patients early, help patients manage their diabetes by encouraging them to take medications as prescribed, and provide patient education regarding antibiotics.”
“Despite the advances in medical science, the incidence of sepsis remains high, and the disease severity has increased,” Dr. Wadhwa shares. “We can all work together to help decrease this: the patients, the caregivers, and the community. Providers in offices, the ER, and the hospital; the nursing and ancillary staff; and researchers must work together.”