Septicaemia to Sepsis to Death


This month, we want to talk about a silent killer called SEPSIS.  World Sepsis Day is on the 13th of September, however, we feel that awareness of sepsis should be highlighted now.  My own father died in July 2013 from sepsis that led to septicemia, after he developed a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI), which was not treated quickly enough.  He went from a 68-year-old strong man to a man who looked like a prisoner-of-war victim.  He died in one week.  This article is dedicated to him; Noel McGeoghan.

So what is sepsis/septicaemia?  We see a lot in the news about people dying from sepsis, but do we all really know what it is.  Basically, sepsis is blood poisoning – an infection in the blood.  It is often mistaken for everyday illnesses such as influenza or a virus and it is more common than heart attacks.  Every year, 150,000 people in the UK develop sepsis and of those, 44,000 die.  Interestingly, sepsis kills more people in the UK than prostate cancer, breast cancer and bowel cancer combined and it costs the NHS £2.93billion a year.  Even with these alarming statistics, awareness of sepsis remains incredibly low.  Very few people know what the signs and symptoms of sepsis are and even doctors find it difficult to diagnose.  Septicemia can quickly become life-threatening.  It must be treated in a hospital because if it is left untreated, septicemia can progress to sepsis.

Septicemia and sepsis aren’t the same. Sepsis is a serious complication of septicemia. Sepsis is when inflammation throughout the body occurs. This inflammation can cause blood clots that then block oxygen from reaching vital organs, resulting in multi-organ failure.

Septicemia occurs when a bacterial infection elsewhere in the body, such as in the lungs or skin, enters the bloodstream. This is dangerous because the bacteria and their toxins can be carried through the bloodstream to your entire body.

There have been many recent medical developments in diagnosis, treatment, monitoring, and training for septicemia. This has helped reduce mortality rates. According to a study published in Critical Care Medicine, the hospital mortality rate from severe sepsis has decreased from 47% (between 1991 and 1995) to 29% (between 2006 and 2009).

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that over 1 million Americans get severe sepsis each year. Between 28 and 50% of these patients may die from the condition. When the inflammation occurs with extremely low blood pressure, it’s called septic shock. Septic shock is fatal in many cases.

The most common infections that lead to septicemia are:

  • urinary tract infections
  • lung infections, such as pneumonia
  • kidney infections
  • infections in the abdominal area

Bacteria from these infections enter the bloodstream and multiply rapidly, causing immediate symptoms.

People who are already in the hospital for something else, such as surgery, are at a higher risk of developing septicemia. Secondary infections can occur while in the hospital. These infections are often more dangerous because the bacteria may already be resistant to antibiotics. You’re also at a higher risk of developing septicemia if you:

  • have severe wounds or burns
  • are very young or very old
  • have a compromised immune system, which can occur from diseases such as HIV or leukaemia
  • have a urinary or intravenous catheter
  • are on mechanical ventilation
  • are receiving medical treatments that weaken your immune systems, such as chemotherapy or steroid injections

The symptoms of septicemia usually start very quickly. Even in the first stages of the illness, a person can look very sick. They may follow an injury, surgery, or another localized (confined to one location) infection, like pneumonia. The most common initial symptoms are:

  • chills
  • elevated body temperature (fever)
  • very fast respiration
  • rapid heart rate

More severe symptoms will begin to emerge as the septicemia progresses without proper treatment. These include the following:

  • confusion or inability to think clearly
  • nausea and vomiting
  • red dots that appear on the skin
  • reduced urine volume
  • inadequate blood flow (shock)

It’s crucial to get to the hospital right away if you or someone else is showing signs of septicemia. Never take a “wait and see” approach or try to treat the problem at home.

Septicemia has a number of serious complications. These complications may be fatal if left untreated or if treatment is delayed for too long.

Diagnosing septicemia and sepsis are some of the biggest challenges facing doctors. It can be difficult to find the exact cause of the infection. Diagnosis will usually involve a wide range of tests.

Your doctor will evaluate your symptoms and ask about your medical history. They’ll perform a physical examination to look for low blood pressure or body temperature. The doctor may also look for signs of conditions that more commonly occur along with septicemia. These conditions include pneumonia, meningitis, and cellulitis.

Your doctor may want to perform tests on multiple types of fluids to help confirm a bacterial infection. These may include the following:

  • urine
  • wound secretions and skin sores
  • respiratory secretions
  • blood

Your doctor may look for your cell and platelet counts and also order tests to analyze your blood clotting.

Your doctor may also look at the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in your blood if septicemia is causing you to have breathing issues.

If signs of infection are not obvious, your doctor may order a test to look more closely at specific organs and tissue, such as:

  • X-ray
  • MRI
  • CT scan
  • ultrasound

Bacterial infections are the underlying cause of septicemia. See a doctor right away if you think you have this condition. If your infection can be effectively treated with antibiotics in the early stages, you may be able to prevent the bacteria from entering your bloodstream. Parents can help protect children from septicemia by ensuring they stay up to date with their vaccinations.

If you already have a compromised immune system, the following precautions can help prevent septicemia:

  • avoid smoking
  • avoid illegal drugs
  • eat a healthy diet
  • exercise
  • wash your hands regularly
  • stay away from people who are sick.