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Sepsis: Identifying the Signs and Symptoms

What Are The Signs and Symptoms of Sepsis?

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Updated October 31, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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Proper hand washing can prevent infection.

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Sepsis is a condition where an infection enters the bloodstream and spreads throughout the body. The condition typically starts with a small infection, often one that seems very minor or even goes unnoticed, but progresses quickly. For this reason, all infections, even ones that do not seem important, should be taken seriously. After surgery, being aware of the signs and symptoms of infection is essential.

Sepsis is life-threatening, and for the best possible outcome, early detection and treatment is absolutely essential. Do not rule out the possibility of sepsis just because you are unaware of an infection. Some infections are not obvious, such as a kidney infection, or a boil on the skin where it cannot be easily seen. Some people who become septic did not even know they had an infection.

While some of the signs of sepsis are similar to what people experience with the flu, such as the chills and a fever, the flu does not typically cause the vast majority of the symptoms present with sepsis.

When untreated, or if it doesn't respond to treatment, sepsis can lead to septic shock. Septic shock is even more serious than sepsis and can also result in death. With septic shock, the patient becomes very unstable, with great difficulty maintaining their blood pressure and other issues that can lead to multi-system organ failure.

Signs and Symptoms of Sepsis

  • Chills
  • Altered mental status (confusion)
  • Fever
  • Low body temperature
  • Low urine output
  • Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Feeling of lightheadedness
  • Rash (petecheia)
  • Low blood pressure (hypotension)
  • Skin may feel very warm
  • Weakness

Testing For Sepsis

Blood Cultures: Blood cultures may show the presence of bacteria.

Arterial Blood Gas: Arterial blood gases may show acidosis.

Kidney Function Tests: BUN and creatinine levels are often elevated, indicating that the kidneys are not functioning as well as they should.

Complete Blood Count (CBC): Platelet counts may be lower than normal. White blood cell count may higher or lower than normal. Immature white blood cells may also be present.

Lactate (Lactic Acid): Lactate levels are typically elevated.

Sources:

Sepsis. The New York Times Health Guide. Accessed March, 2011. http://health.nytimes.com/health/guides/disease/sepsis/overview.html

Sepsis and Septic Shock. Merck Manual of Medical Information, 2nd Home Edition. Accessed March, 2011. http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/print/sec17/ch191/ch191c.html

Septicemia. PubMed Health. Accessed March 2011. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002331/

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