If you are experiencing a medical emergency, please call 911 or seek care at an emergency room.
September is Sepsis Awareness Month—an important time for patients and health care providers to learn more about this life-threatening condition.
Sepsis occurs when the body overreacts to an infection and causes major organ and tissue damage. Any infection in any person can result in sepsis, which is why it’s so dangerous. Every year in the U.S., nearly 2 million people develop sepsis and it claims 270,000 lives.
Sepsis is often referred to as blood poisoning. While a blood infection can lead to sepsis, it is not the only potential cause of sepsis. Whether a patient has severe burns, pneumonia, a urinary tract infection, or appendicitis, any infection is considered a sepsis risk.
At MedStar Health, sepsis awareness is a year-round initiative. We provide a higher volume of specialty care than other institutions in our region, which means our doctors and nurses are attuned to the symptoms, treatments, and effects of sepsis associated with all types of infections—and just as importantly, what it takes to prevent sepsis when possible.
We watch closely for high-risk factors, such as patients who have:
- A weakened immune system or take chronic medication that suppresses their immune system, such as chemotherapy
- An object inside their body, such as a catheter or piece of metal from a previous surgery or wound
To ensure our patients get the highest level of infection prevention and care, we’ve launched a high-priority project that will further improve our sepsis protocols.
Common sepsis symptoms.
An infection can progress to sepsis within hours or days, depending on the type of infection and the patient’s level of vulnerability. Because sepsis can become severe so quickly, it’s best to identify signs and symptoms as early as possible.
The first signs of sepsis include:
- A very high or low temperature, which can indicate poor regulation
- Elevated heart rate
- High respiratory rate
- Increased or decreased white blood cell count
We also look for signs of organ failure: a patient who is confused, for example, or has low blood pressure despite receiving IV fluids.
However, the symptoms of sepsis overlap with common symptoms of other conditions and aren’t always obvious. If a patient is presenting with outward signs of sepsis, we typically perform blood tests to look for signs of systemic infection or organ damage. These can tell us the patient’s white blood cell count, how the blood is clotting, if any systemic inflammation exists, and if bacteria has caused an infection. We may also perform a urine test if we suspect a kidney or urinary tract infection, or a chest Xray if we suspect pneumonia or other specialized studies.
Time is of the essence. If sepsis is not identified or treated fast enough, it can be fatal. Patients who survive it can suffer long-term effects including limb loss, overall muscle weakness, permanent organ damage, and mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
#Sepsis progresses fast & claims 270,000 U.S. lives each year. Common symptoms include high or low body temp, elevated heart rate, shortness of breath, and low blood pressure. Seek treatment immediately if you suspect sepsis: https://bit.ly/3zVd92Y.Click to Tweet
Health care and technology experts team up to improve sepsis outcomes.
Continually improving how we identify and treat sepsis has led to more positive outcomes. We have united our best experts and resources to develop a faster, more accurate method to diagnose sepsis as early as possible.
A multidisciplinary team of nurses, doctors, pharmacists, and advanced practice providers across the entire MedStar system meets regularly with our data analysts and engineers to review the most cutting-edge research available. We then use that data to improve our processes for identifying patients at risk of sepsis and creating the best strategies to care for those with mild cases to serious complications.
Incorporating innovative technology reduces our response time and raises patient recovery rates:
- Our internal computer system alerts health care providers to any patient who may potentially be septic. Every hospital has a specialized system to evaluate these alerts and recommend treatment.
- An automatic order form that requests more advanced lab results is available to care providers of patients who may be septic. This order form makes it easier and faster to check for internal damage caused by sepsis once we identify a patient at risk of developing it.
Our research team’s next step is building a new identification tool. Using a sepsis staging model (the beginning-to-end process of sepsis development) and existing electronic health record data, it will help us quickly recognize which patients are at the highest risk of a serious outcome—and then immediately send a team of specialists to further evaluate those patients. By narrowing the focus from patients who can potentially develop sepsis to patients who are at higher risk of death, we strive to increase survival rates and decrease long-term side effects.
Treating sepsis in time.
Just as there’s no one way to identify sepsis, there’s no one way to treat it. The most important factor is source control, which means we have to treat what’s causing the infection.
Most sepsis cases are caused by a bacterial infection. We typically treat these with antibiotics, which slow bacteria growth. But if something else is causing the infection, like a piece of metal inside the body, we may have to remove or clean the source. While doing this, we provide IV fluids or medicine to keep the patient’s blood pressure in a safe range as their body fights the infection. Sepsis can also be caused by other sources of infection, such as viruses or fungi.
The future of sepsis prevention.
One of many lessons COVID-19 has taught us is that the study of infections will grow more important. We’re seeing progress everywhere. A new vaccine technology, for example, is anticipated to prevent septic shock, which refers to the organ failure that occurs when sepsis is not treated in time. Early in 2021, an Iowa teenager created color-changing stitches that detect early infections.
Patients and family members also play a role in sepsis prevention. As it is Sepsis Awareness Month, I encourage everyone to learn more about easy infection prevention steps, such as thoroughly washing your hands, cleaning and covering wounds, following specific instructions when you are prescribed antibiotics, and keeping your vaccines up to date.
By educating yourself, friends, and family on sepsis symptoms and causes, you’re more likely to seek emergency care at the first sign of sepsis, speed up treatment, and help save lives.