Sepsis, a life-threatening blood infection that requires immediate medical attention, occurs when, in response to an initial infection, the body damages its own tissues and organs. The result is often septic shock or organ failure, and even death, if treatment doesn’t come quickly. The chances of developing sepsis increase with age, with those over 65 finding themselves at higher risk, especially if they have a chronic illness.
Early detection and recognition of symptoms is extremely important. If you suspect you have sepsis, it is absolutely essential that you seek medical help immediately. Early diagnosis and treatment are key to reducing the risk of serious complications.
The most common symptoms and early warning signs of sepsis are:
1. A rapid heartbeat – When blood flow is insufficient, the heart may have difficulty pumping blood around the body, forcing it to beat faster in order to make up for this deficit. As a result, those suffering from sepsis may see an elevated heart rate, often accompanied by dizziness or lightheadedness. It’s important for patients experiencing a rapid heartbeat to seek medical help as soon as possible, as this symptom could point to other grave health issues, such as cardiac arrest or stroke.
2. Shortness of breath or fast breathing – Patients may experience difficulty breathing or take shallow breaths due to the inability of oxygenated blood to reach cells throughout the body. Sepsis can cause blood vessels to become narrowed and blood pressure to drop significantly, resulting in inadequate blood flow. In some cases, sepsis can cause a person’s lungs to fill with fluid, leading to a condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
3. A change in mental state: confusion or disorientation. Sepsis can cause mental changes that range from confusion and delirium to loss of consciousness and coma-like states. These changes can be caused by diminished blood flow that prevents oxygen from reaching the brain or toxins affecting cognitive functions such as memory and concentration. Additionally, people with severe infections may develop high fevers, which can also contribute to confusion and lead to delirium-like states where they cannot recognize familiar faces or respond appropriately when spoken to.
4. Decreased urination – Sepsis can impair kidney function, which will make it difficult for the body to filter waste products from the blood, resulting in decreased urine output. Low blood pressure (see the next paragraph) can cause hypovolemia – a condition in which the liquid portion of the blood is too low in volume – which, together with decreased cardiac output, can cause oliguria, the production of abnormally small amounts of urine. If not treated promptly, this condition can cause organ damage due to the accumulation of excess waste in the blood stream.
5. Changes in blood pressure – Sepsis can cause blood pressure to rise or drop suddenly as blood flow is compromised, disrupting the body’s normal healthy balance. High blood pressure is often accompanied by a rapid pulse, headaches, and chest pain, while low blood pressure may manifest as dizziness and fainting. Patients who experience sudden changes in blood pressure should seek medical attention immediately, as this could be indicative of sepsis or another serious infection.
6. A high temperature (fever) or low body temperature – Sepsis causes a fever as the body temperature rises in an attempt to fight off the infection. Fevers are often one of the first warning signs that something is wrong, and can range anywhere from 100°F to 104°F, depending on the severity of the blood infection. It’s important for people who develop a fever to seek medical attention right away, as it could be an indicator of sepsis, especially if they have been recently exposed to bacteria or viruses and are displaying other symptoms such as confusion or decreased urination.
7. Chills/Shivering – As blood flow throughout the body becomes impaired due to sepsis, people can experience chills or involuntary shaking due to a sudden drop in body temperature. Shivering is a common side effect of sepsis, which can cause blood vessels to constrict, leading to a decrease in blood flow and hence in the body’s overall temperature. Chills are usually accompanied by fever and should be reported right away, so that medical professionals can identify the underlying blood infection potentially responsible for these symptoms.
8. Nausea/vomiting – Sepsis can cause inflammation throughout the body, which can lead to nausea and vomiting as well as other digestive issues, such as abdominal pain or diarrhea. If accompanied by fever or confusion, these symptoms could point to a blood infection, requiring immediate medical attention.
9. Muscle aches/tenderness – Sepsis causes inflammation throughout the body, which can lead to severe muscle pain. Those suffering from a severe infection may also experience tenderness when touched due to inflammation around major organs such as the kidneys, liver, spleen, and heart.
10. Cold, clammy, or mottled skin – Sepsis causes blood vessels to constrict, impairing proper circulation. As a result, those suffering from sepsis may experience cold, clammy skin, and parts of the body may appear pale or mottled. Patients with severe sepsis may develop a rash that likely appears on the trunk of the body and can spread quickly if left untreated. It’s important to look out for any changes in skin coloration, as these could be indicative of sepsis.
11. Rapid breathing – Sepsis can cause rapid breathing due to inflammation, which affects the lungs and makes it harder for them to process air. Sepsis can also cause difficulty breathing due to fluid buildup in the lungs, known as pulmonary edema. Rapid breathing should be reported to a medical professional right away, as it could indicate sepsis or another blood infection.
12. Chest Pain – Sepsis can cause chest pain due to inflammation of the lungs and the heart. Additionally, those who are very ill with sepsis may experience fluid buildup in their chest, which can also lead to chest pain or discomfort.
13. Slurred Speech – Sepsis can affect blood flow throughout the body, which impairs cognitive function and can lead to slurred speech. Sepsis can also cause confusion or disorientation, which can result in slurred speech.
Sepsis is a blood infection that can be life-threatening if not diagnosed and treated quickly. Early detection of sepsis symptoms is crucial to preventing serious complications, such as organ failure or even death. Knowing the signs of sepsis, including fever, confusion, decreased urination, and more, can help identify the condition early on. It’s important to seek medical attention right away if you are experiencing any of these symptoms, as they could be a sign of sepsis.