October 22, 2002

Sepsis and Its Complications

Every minute of every day, two people die from sepsis in the United States. It is the leading cause of death in hospital ICUs, taking more lives than breast, colon/rectal, pancreatic and prostate cancer combined. Even more alarming, according to a recent report by the Society of Critical Care Medicine, sepsis is becoming more common.

"Sepsis can strike anyone, but it often develops from infections associated with trauma, surgery, burns or cancer," said Jean-Louis Vincent, M.D., Ph.D., FCCM, Professor and Head of the Department of Intensive Care, Erasme University Hospital, University of Brussels, Belgium. "When someone dies of 'complications' from cancer or pneumonia, it is more than likely caused by severe sepsis."

Sepsis is the body's response to an infection. Patients developing sepsis progress from ill to seriously ill, to major organ dysfunction and failure (severe sepsis) and then to potentially fatal septic shock.

Symptoms include:
  • Fever and shaking chills
  • Reduced mental alertness, sometimes with confusion
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea in the presence of infection
  • Low blood pressure
  • Kidney or liver problems
Researchers say the rise in cases of sepsis is caused both by doctors becoming more proficient at diagnosing infection and by widespread overuse of antibiotics, which creates drug-resistant germs that are difficult to fight.

What can we do to prevent sepsis? The following tips can help:
  1. Smoking and excessive consumption of alcohol can increase your chance of developing sepsis.
  2. Sepsis can develop quickly. The sooner it is diagnosed and treated, the better.
  3. The normal symptoms of an infection should not last longer than five days and a fever should be no higher than 102 or 103. If the fever exceeds 103 degrees with chills, confusion or difficulty breathing, the patient should be taken to the hospital immediately.
To learn more on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow, see Dr. John Morley's article, Sepsis, and Dr. Martin J. Carey's article, Burns: From Treatment to Prevention.

Reviewed by: John E. Morley, M.D..
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