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What Is Sepsis?

Learn about this dangerous condition and what you can do to protect yourself.

Many people think of sepsis as a type of infection, but it is not actually a specific type of infection. Rather, it is an extreme response that the immune system mounts when fighting an infection in the body. This results in inflammation that can cause tissue damage, organ failure and even death if it is not treated quickly.

Bacterial infections cause most cases of sepsis but it can also result from viral infections such as COVID-19 or the flu. Infections that lead to sepsis most often start in the lungs, urinary tract, skin or gastrointestinal tract.

Who is at risk of getting sepsis?

Anyone can get sepsis, but people who are at higher risk include adults ages 65 and older, people with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, lung disease, cancer and kidney disease, and those with weakened immune systems. You can’t spread sepsis to others, but you can spread an infection that can lead to sepsis to other people.

How do you prevent sepsis?

Here are some steps you can take to make it less likely you’ll develop sepsis:

  • Prevent infections. Get recommended preventative vaccinations, such as the flu, COVID-19 and pneumonia vaccines. Also take steps to avoid getting sick, such as staying away from people who are sick and wearing a mask when around others.
  • Practice good hygiene. Keep your hands and body clean to help prevent infections. Wash hands frequently. Keep wounds clean and dry. When using the toilet, clean yourself thoroughly, wiping from front to back to prevent urinary tract infections.
  • Take antibiotics as prescribed. If you have any type of infection and your doctor prescribes antibiotics, take them exactly as recommended and complete the entire dose, even if you start feeling better before the dose is finished. This is very important in treating infection and preventing it from happening again.
  • Keep your immune system healthy. Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, reducing stress, managing chronic medical problems and limiting drug and alcohol use all help keep your immune system strong. A strong immune system helps your body fight off infections, and if one occurs, lessens the chance it progresses to sepsis.
  • Know the symptoms of sepsis. Signs that you may have sepsis include fever, chills or feeling unusually cold; confusion and or disorientation; shortness of breath; fast heart rate; cold, clammy skin; or extreme pain or discomfort.

If you suspect you have sepsis, or have an infection that is not getting better or is getting worse, call your doctor immediately or go to the nearest emergency room. Sepsis can be life-threatening if it is not treated quickly.

 

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Date Last Reviewed: July 15, 2022

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD