Are you at risk for sepsis?

Husband Visiting Wife In Hospital
It is not just during hospital stays that you have to worry about a sepsis infection. (istock)

It is a silent, deadly killer whose symptoms are hard to pinpoint and an increasingly common illness that still so few people know about. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named September Sepsis Awareness Month so before we leave September, here’s a quick look at what you need to know to protect yourself and your loved ones.

According to the Sepsis Alliance, the number of Americans each year diagnosed with sepsis has reached more than a million and almost half of those cases are fatal. Look at this way: every two minutes someone in the U.S. dies of sepsis, making it the third leading cause of death right behind cancer and heart disease. If antibiotics are not administered within the first few hours, a patient’s chance at recovery is severely lessened. Early recognition and prevention is crucial for successful treatment

What is Sepsis?

Sepsis occurs when the chemicals your immune system releases to fight infections instead starts damaging the body potentially leading to blood clots and organ failure. Anything from surgery, to the flu could be the trigger point.

What are the symptoms?

While many of the symptoms of sepsis can be seen in other conditions as well, according to Thomas University Hospital, when a patient goes into septic shock, his or her blood pressure drops and they might exhibit some of the following symptoms:

  • High or very low temperature
  • Chills
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Shortness of breath
  • Restlessness, agitation, lethargy or confusion.

Who are at risk?

Despite the common belief that sepsis is only picked up by patients during their stay at a hospital, Dr. Jim O'Brien, Jr. chairman of the board of directors of the Sepsis Alliance says that most patients already have sepsis when they come in. While no one is free of risk, those who have a weakened immune system, infants, the elderly and those who are healing from a physical trauma are more susceptible.

At the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, they have been studying newborn sepsis and have discovered that when the mother experiences complications during her pregnancy or delivery, her child’s risk of sepsis increases. If the amniotic sac ruptures prematurely or the mother starts a fever during labor, then the newborn is more prone to infection.

How do doctors diagnosis and treat sepsis patients?

Because many of the symptoms of sepsis also present in other illnesses, diagnosis is not instantaneous. Normal protocol is for doctors to check the blood and other bodily fluids for bacteria. Too much acid in the blood as well as low platelet count, and low blood pressure are all possible indicators as well.

In a study by the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP), doctors founds that a patient who presents with sepsis symptoms has a better chance of survival at hospitals who see these types of cases on a regular basis and are already familiar with how to recognize and treat it. At HUP the emergency department have been exploring how to use serum lactate (lactic acid in the blood) to indicate if the body’s tissues and organs are receiving enough oxygen which is a potential marker for sepsis shock. And at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, they are now using a MALDI-TOF mass spectrometer to more quickly make a diagnosis.

If you suspect that you or a loved one has sepsis, head straight to the emergency room. Because chance of death increases every hour that treatment is delayed, immediate action is important. For brochures, and videos on sepsis, visit http://www.sepsisalliance.org.