5 Signs Of Sepsis You Need to Know About
Signs of sepsis
By now you likely understand that when you have an infection, your immune system works tirelessly—sometimes with the help of medications like antibiotics and antivirals—to fight the invaders that are making you sick. But unfortunately, this battle isn’t always easily won.
When an infection isn’t treated properly or rages out of control, your immune system can go haywire (for reasons doctors don’t fully understand), causing you to develop sepsis, a life-threatening condition in which the body actually injures its own tissues and organs. And it’s no joke. More than 1.5 million people get sepsis each year in the U.S. and at least 250,000 Americans die from sepsis annually, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
If left untreated, sepsis can progress into septic shock, the most severe form of the condition, which “compromises the cardiovascular system and results in very low blood pressure and inadequate blood flow to vital organs,” says Carmen Polito, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine. Once in shock, you have very low blood pressure that’s difficult to improve with IV fluids and a high lactate level, which suggests you’re not getting adequate blood flow to organs and cells.
Since there isn’t a single test for the condition, sepsis and septic shock are very difficult to diagnose. BUT what doctors do know is that sepsis is most commonly caused by four infections: pneumonia, abdominal infections (such as untreated appendicitis), urinary tract infections (UTIs), or an infection of skin or soft tissue, says Craig Coopersmith, M.D., professor of surgery at Emory University School of Medicine. Signs of sepsis frequently overlap with those of septic shock and both go hand-in-hand with symptoms—like painful urination or trouble breathing—of those primary infections.
So, if you ever experience a combination of infection symptoms and the following, you should seek medical help immediately—no ifs, ands, or buts.
Here are the five main signs of sepsis:
When experiencing sepsis, your body focuses on pumping blood to the most crucial organs like your heart, kidney, and brain rather than to less crucial areas of the body (think: your extremities), Christopher Seymour, M.D., assistant professor of critical care and emergency medicine at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine says. Because of this, your skin can begin to feel cold and clammy. And this can either stay the same or get worse when your body goes into septic shock.
But remember: Cold and clammy skin can be a symptom of many less deadly (and even totally benign) conditions, too. It’s only cause for concern if you’re experiencing other symptoms of a primary infection, too.
Because the kidney is one of the most commonly-injured organs in sepsis—particularly since it’s so sensitive to changes in blood flow and pressure—it’s not uncommon for your urine to be affected. When your body senses low blood pressure, it tries to hold onto as much fluid as possible, which results in less fluid in your urine (a.k.a. darker, smellier pee) and causes your kidneys to make less urine (meaning fewer bathroom trips), Seymour says.
Another cause of this symptom? Dehydration as a result of losing fluids through, say, sweating because of a fever, and not replenishing them enough through food and liquids. Together this dehydrating combo can lead to another reason for altered urination: leaky blood vessels, in which fluid leaks out of your blood stream and into your body much like water in a garden hose with a bunch of pin pricks on the side, Coopersmith says. In extreme cases, some patients might even stop peeing entirely. If you’re feeling sick and begin to notice negative changes in your peeing, don’t necessarily blame it on a day’s worth of poor hydration.
Confusion, decreased level of alertness, and lightheadedness and/or dizziness can all be the result of low blood flow to the brain, dehydration, and the “bad” toxins released into the body as a result of sepsis. If you’re experiencing septic shock, all of these symptoms will be, in Seymour’s words, “quite profound,” such that they’ll feel like the extreme versions of what you’ve known to be, say, dizziness. Seymour emphasizes again that these signs must be in the presence of an infection to signify sepsis especially since they’re also common symptoms of other issues like a stroke (confusion) or simply tiredness or fatigue.
This isn’t just your typical amped-up heart rate after a morning run. No, we’re talking about having a speedy heart rate—a feeling like your heart is racing—while you’re, say, simply sitting in a chair. The average Joe’s typical heart rate is between 60 to 90 beats-per-minute, so if you take your pulse and find anything above 90, this could be a sign of sepsis, Coopersmith says. In sepsis your body is revved up because it’s attempting to fight the infection, plus its trying super hard to get blood flow to the damaged tissues. This calls on your heart to increase the amount of blood it’s pumping out, thus speeding up your heart rate to feel like it’s at the Indy 500. Because symptoms do not necessarily progress linearly from sepsis to septic shock, such that they worsen gradually with each level of the condition, your heart rate may or may not get even higher in septic shock.
Unless you’re in a meditation class, you don’t typically think about your breathing, right? So if you notice you are breathing rapidly and/or experiencing shortness of breath, as if you just climbed multiple flights of stairs, then you might want to take a deeper look into what’s going on. And remember, pneumonia (think: lungs!) is the most common infection to cause sepsis. Like increased heart rate, these symptoms are a result of your body being in overdrive—in this case, consuming more oxygen and thus producing more carbon dioxide than usual. Because of this, your body needs more oxygen and tries to meet this demand by breathing faster and potentially causing you to feel winded, Coopersmith explains. In some patients, breathing might worsen to the point where they can no longer breathe on their own. Lesson again: Don’t just chalk up your altered breathing to a challenging HIIT class…even hours after it ended. Like Polito cautions, “It’s always better to be safe than sorry.”
So let us repeat: If you experience any of the above symptoms in conjunction with those of an infection, Coopersmith, Polito, and Seymour all urge you to seek medical attention stat. Why the rush? Because sepsis is “a time-sensitive syndrome,” meaning the damage that occurs happens over hours, not days—plus, there is data to suggest that the faster sepsis and septic shock are treated, the better patients’ outcomes are (think: lower risk of death), Seymour says.
While treatment varies because each patient and infection is different, it’s usually an aggressive process, since docs are faced with challenges such as the condition’s diagnostic difficulty and rapid speed. They’ll first address the underlying infection by administering antibiotics and try to raise blood pressure and volume with IV fluids. Then, they’ll focus on something called “source control,” which involves figuring out the cause of the infection and taking the proper steps—in some cases even surgery or drainage—to control it, Seymour explains.
When it comes to sepsis and septic shock, remember that early identification and treatment are crucial. So, if you’re ever concerned, seek medical attention to reduce your risk of complications. “Septic shock is fatal in 40 percent of cases,” Polito says—so don’t wait.