What Are The Warning Signs Of Life-Threatening Sepsis?


5 Min Read

Hypothermia (below 96.8F), hyperthermia (over 101F), more than 20 breaths or 90 heartbeats per min are shout-outs for sepsis. Oliguria, lower platelet count, abdominal pain, and difficulty breathing can escalate into a precipitous drop in blood pressure resulting in septic shock. Shivering, extreme pain, pale skin, sleepiness, and shortness of breath are signs to watch out for.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), sepsis is the single biggest cause of deaths in intensive care units (ICUs) in the developed world.1 Every year, the United States witnesses as many as 750,000 cases of sepsis and about 258,000 people succumb to the condition.2 Knowing the warning signs can help you save a loved one’s life and protect them from succumbing to a potentially life-threatening condition.

What Is Sepsis?

Sepsis is a systemic inflammatory response syndrome caused by infection. In extreme cases, it can lead to organ dysfunction and even death. It progresses in three stages, beginning with sepsis, followed by severe sepsis, and then by septic shock. Early symptoms are similar to those of many other infections, making it hard to pin down unless specific red flags are reviewed together. The scale of the problem has prompted the WHO to make “prevention of sepsis and catheter-associated bloodstream infections” a key focus area for 2015‒2017 for the global Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) unit.3

Warning Signs Of Sepsis

For someone in early stages of sepsis, body temperature may drop below 96.8 F or shoot up over 101 F.4 Besides hypothermia or a fever, they may have an elevated respiratory rate, with more than 20 breaths taken per minute. The heart rate will be over 90 beats per minute. If two or more of these symptoms are present, it is likely to be sepsis. Doctors diagnose the condition by checking for these physical signs and also through lab tests to check for infection.

Severe Sepsis And Septic Shock

As the condition escalates, early warning signs of organ failure begin to show up. These include a significant drop in output of urine, a sudden change in mental ability, problems with breathing, abdominal pain, drop in platelet count, and an abnormal pumping of the heart. As these problems worsen, the body goes into septic shock where blood pressure plummets and is not helped by fluid replacement.

As one study on sepsis-linked mortality in England explains, the bulk of patients who are in critical care units and develop sepsis currently succumb to the infection.5 However, if the condition is spotted and treated sooner using the right treatment including broad spectrum antibiotics quickly, the mortality can go down.6

Watch Out For “SEPSIS”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has summarized the signs into an easy-to-remember acronym that could be a lifesaver some day.7

S ‒ Shivering (if you feel the shivers, are feverish, or are very cold)

E ‒ Extreme pain (like you have never felt before, or even general discomfort that is extreme)

P ‒ Pale (skin that is discolored/pale)

S ‒ Sleepy (drowsiness, confusion, and difficulty in waking up)

I ‒ “I feel like I might die”

S ‒ Short (shortness of breath)

Are You More At Risk?

While sepsis can strike anyone, there are certain conditions that can put you at greater risk. Anyone with a weakened or compromised immune system, including the elderly or very young children and babies, is at greater risk than a normal healthy adult. Those living with chronic illnesses like diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, AIDS, or cancer are more vulnerable. In addition, if there is any wound on the body or a severe burn, you become more prone to sepsis.8

Pneumonia, as well as kidney, abdominal, and bloodstream infections, are infections more commonly associated with sepsis. Unlike some conditions which are limited to developing nations, sepsis is prevalent in the developed world too – including in countries like Germany where it is the third leading cause, and the United States where it is the ninth leading cause, of disease-linked deaths.910

Antibiotic resistant bacteria also aggravate the problem because they cause infections that bring on the sepsis.

What To Do If You Suspect Sepsis?

If you or a loved one exhibiting signs of sepsis is in the hospital, then get the attention of the doctor immediately and don’t be afraid to voice your concerns that it could be sepsis. For anyone in the ICU or hospitalized after surgery or an illness, the chances of sepsis are higher due to the weakened immune system.

If you are at home, then get in touch with a doctor right away. Ideally, head to the emergency room and remember to say you think it is sepsis. This is especially important if you have recently recovered from an infection or undergone a surgery.

References   [ + ]

1.Russell, James A. “Management of sepsis.” New England Journal of Medicine 355, no. 16 (2006): 1699-1713.
2.Angus, Derek C., Walter T. Linde-Zwirble, Jeffrey Lidicker, Gilles Clermont, Joseph Carcillo, and Michael R. Pinsky. “Epidemiology of severe sepsis in the United States: analysis of incidence, outcome, and associated costs of care.” Critical Care Medicine-Baltimore- 29, no. 7 (2001): 1303-1310.
3.Infection prevention and control, World Health Organization.
4.Drewry, Anne M., Brian M. Fuller, Thomas C. Bailey, and Richard S. Hotchkiss. “Body temperature patterns as a predictor of hospital-acquired sepsis in afebrile adult intensive care unit patients: a case-control study.” Crit Care 17, no. 5 (2013): R200.
5.McPherson, Duncan, Clare Griffiths, Matthew Williams, Allan Baker, Ed Klodawski, Bobbie Jacobson, and Liam Donaldson. “Sepsis-associated mortality in England: an analysis of multiple cause of death data from 2001 to 2010.”BMJ open 3, no. 8 (2013): e002586.
6. Hall, Margaret Jean. “Inpatient care for septicemia or sepsis: a challenge for patients and hospitals.” (2011).
7, 8, 10.Sepsis Questions and Answers, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
9.Otgon, Bataar, Ganbold Lundeg, Ganbat Tsenddorj, Stefan Jochberger, Wilhelm Grander, Inipavudu Baelani, Iain Wilson, Tim Baker, and Martin W. Dünser. “Nationwide survey on resource availability for implementing current sepsis guidelines in Mongolia.” Bulletin of the World Health Organization 88, no. 11 (2010): 839-846
CureJoy Editorial

The CureJoy Editorial team digs up credible information from multiple sources, both academic and experiential, to stitch a holistic health perspective on topics that pique our readers' interest.

CureJoy Editorial

The CureJoy Editorial team digs up credible information from multiple sources, both academic and experiential, to stitch a holistic health perspective on topics that pique our readers' interest.