Doctors Must Race Against Time to Save Patients from Sepsis

Sepsis is a little-known bodily reaction to infection and may threaten a patient's life if not caught early

Doctors Must Race Against Time to Save Patients from Sepsis
Image: Pixabay
August 24, 2016

Many people are aware of bodily reactions to foreign bodies or antigens that can be life threatening, such as allergies to food and bee stings. Few are aware that the body can have a similar reaction to an infection, which can lead to a condition known as sepsis that requires rapid medical intervention.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines sepsis as a result of "the body's overwhelming and life-threatening response to an infection [requiring] rapid intervention." Although it may result from an infection contracted in a hospital, the condition begins outside of that medical setting for almost 80 percent of sepsis patients. The CDC estimates that approximately 7 out of 10 septic patients had either used some form of health care services recently or had pre-existing, chronic conditions requiring frequent medical treatment.

For these patients, it is an opportunity for a healthcare provider to educate them about the condition before it occurs, and when it does occur, to recognize and treat it before it can reach the stage in which it threatens a patient's life.

"When sepsis occurs, it should be treated as a medical emergency," said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. "Doctors and nurses can prevent sepsis and also the devastating effects of sepsis, and patients and families can watch for sepsis and ask, 'could this be sepsis?'"

There are certain groups of people who are more likely to experience sepsis when they contract an infection. These include people aged 65 and older, infants less than one year old, people with weakened immune systems, and people with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes. However, though it is less common, healthy children and adults may also develop sepsis after contracting an infection, especially when the condition is not recognized quickly.

The signs and symptoms of sepsis include: shivering, fever, or feeling very cold; extreme discomfort or pain; sweaty or clammy skin; confusion or disorientation; and shortness of breath and a high heart rate.

The infections that most often to lead to sepsis, according to the CDC, are lung infections, urinary tract infections, skin infections, and gut infections, though in most of these cases the germ that actually caused the infection was not identified. The most common germs that were identified included staphylococcus aureus, E. coli, and some type of streptococcus.

Healthcare professionals, family members, and patients can all join together and work as a team to prevent sepsis from occurring. Healthcare professionals are particularly crucial in protecting their patients from infections that can lead to sepsis, as well as in recognizing the condition early.

The following are actions that providers can take to protect their patients: prevent infections by following infection control requirements (e.g. handwashing) and ensuring that patients receive recommended vaccines (e.g. flu and pneumococcal); educate their patients as well as their families by stressing the importance of preventing infections, managing chronic conditions, and promptly seeking treatment if an infection does not improve; know and recognize the signs and symptoms of sepsis in order to catch it early; act quickly by ordering tests to determine the presence, location, and cause of an infection if sepsis is suspected; and reassess patient management by checking the patient's progress frequently, reassessing the antibiotic therapy the patient is receiving within 24 to 48 hours or before to ensure it will be changed as needed, and determining the correct type, dose, and duration of antibiotics.