Sepsis is the body's critical response to an infection and can lead to tissue damage, organ failure and death. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 258,000 Americans will die each year because of sepsis, and thousands of others will be left with debilitating conditions.
Anyone can get sepsis from an infection, even a minor one. However, those with weakened immune systems; the elderly and very young; and people with chronic illness or severe burns or wounds are at a greater risk.
While often thought to be caused by an infection one might acquire in a hospital setting, the majority of sepsis cases are initially diagnosed in the emergency department, indicating the sepsis occurred outside of a hospital.
"Sepsis has always been one of the major killers of mankind," says Dr. David Willms, a board-certified critical care and pulmonary disease specialist affiliated with Sharp Memorial Hospital. "Patients with diabetes, organ transplants or those on chemotherapy for cancer should be aware of the high risk of sepsis if they develop an infection."
Symptoms of sepsis can include the usual signs of infection such as a sore throat, general fatigue, body aches or upset stomach. The CDC has created a word mnemonic to remember the other signs of sepsis:
S – Shivering, fever or very cold
E – Extreme pain or general discomfort
P – Pale or discolored skin
S – Sleepy, difficult to wake or confused
I – Use of the pronoun "I" to explain to a doctor how you feel, as in "I feel I might die"
S – Shortness of breath
If you experience any of these signs or symptoms, you should call a doctor or go to the emergency room immediately. It is important to ask your doctor about sepsis. The CDC recommends that you specifically say to your health care provider, "I am concerned about sepsis" in order to receive immediate care — which can be a matter of life or death.
If sepsis is diagnosed, you will likely be treated in the hospital with antibiotics, oxygen and IV fluids. Assisted breathing, kidney dialysis and even surgery to remove any damaged tissue may be necessary in extreme cases.
To avoid sepsis, experts recommend vaccination against infections that could lead to sepsis, such as the flu and pneumonia; avoiding tobacco and heavy alcohol use; carefully cleaning all scrapes and wounds, even those that may seem minor; and practicing good hygiene by washing your hands often and bathing regularly.
For the media: To talk with a Sharp doctor about sepsis, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was updated in May 2017.