Sepsis can kill anyone. Boxer Muhammad Ali, Pope John Paul II and Muppets creator Jim Henson are among the people who have died from complications related to sepsis, the body’s extreme reaction to infection that causes tissue damage, organ failure and, in these severe cases, death.
Sepsis is often referred to as a “silent killer” because many symptoms can be confused with, or related to, other medical conditions. It’s a leading cause for hospital admissions and mortality, with 1.7 million new cases each year in the U.S. Sepsis takes a life every 2 minutes — 270,000 lives lost to sepsis every year. That’s more than lives lost to opioid overdoses, breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. It’s a public health crisis.
Last year, Hartford HealthCare treated more than 6,300 patients for sepsis.
September is Sepsis Awareness month, and Sept. 13 is World Sepsis Day. Sepsis Awareness Week at Hartford HealthCare, Sept 9-13, will highlight sepsis as a medical emergency that requires early identification and treatment — antibiotics within three hours of arriving at a hospital.
“Screening for sepsis starts as soon as the patient arrives in any Hartford HealthCare emergency department,” says Alanis Tartsinis, a nurse who coordinates Hartford HealthCare’s sepsis effort with Dr. Misbahul Siddiqi.
Hartford HealthCare’s sepsis team has worked with CareConnect — an electronic medical records technology that combines patient registration, health records and billing so patients — to create a sepsis banner that appears in patients’ medical records if they possibly meet sepsis criteria based on screening and vital signs.
“All nurses at Hartford HealthCare,” says Tartsinis, “have completed a sepsis competency that reviews the signs and symptoms of sepsis and the importance of prompt treatment.”
Sepsis can occur in people of all ages but in many cases affects people with compromised immune systems such as infants, children, the elderly and patients with other health conditions such as diabetes or respiratory illnesses. People age 65 or older or less than 1 are particularly vulnerable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than 90 percent of adults and 70 percent of children who developed sepsis had a previous at-risk health condition.
Early and aggressive treatment is the best way to handle sepsis, the clinical name for blood poisoning by bacteria. Severe sepsis can cause septic shock, with life-threatening low blood pressure and insufficient oxygen to organs.
Antibiotics are frequently prescribed but in more complicated cases intravenous fluids, ventilation and steroids are often needed.
The CDC advises people to get vaccinated against the flu, pneumonia and other illnesses or diseases to help avoid sepsis. Cleaning scrapes and wounds, practicing good hygiene and washing your hands regularly can also help avoid sepsis and other infections.
Time matters when diagnosing and treating sepsis. Seek immediate medical attention if you have a severe infection and are experiencing symptoms such as shivering, fever, chills, extreme pain or discomfort, clammy or sweaty skin, confusion or disorientation, shortness of breath and rapid heartbeat.
Sepsis can affect everyone, and some people are at higher risk:
- Adults older than 65.
- Young children (less than 1 year old).
- Pregnant women.
- People with weakened immune systems (taking chemotherapy, immunotherapy, corticosteroids) or do not have a spleen.
- People with chronic medical conditions: Diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, kidney disease, liver disease or cancer.
Signs of Sepsis:
An actual or possible infection with:
- General weakness.
- Fever, shivering or chills.
- Difficulty breathing- short of breath at rest.
- Rapid heart rate.
- Fever, shivering, feeling very cold.
Treatment of Sepsis:
If you are experiencing any signs of an infection, seek medical attention to start treatment right away. Complete the full prescription of medication as directed by your provider.
If you are experiencing signs of sepsis seek emergent medical attention. For every hour treatment is delayed, the risk of death increases by as much as 8 percent.
Some of the medications used to treat sepsis:
- Intravenous antibiotics to fight infection.
- Intravenous fluids & medications to increase blood pressure.
- Insulin to stabilize blood sugar.
Reducing your risks of infection can help to decrease your risk for sepsis.
- Frequent and thorough hand-washing decreases the spread of germs.
- Staying up to date on vaccinations can decrease your risk of infections.
- Promptly seek treatment for infections.
- Follow all infections for the treatment of infections as prescribed.
- Maintain a healthy living and healthy nutrition.
If you have questions or concerns about sepsis, talk to your doctor. Be sure to ask about vaccinations. If you’re in need of a doctor, please visit myhhcdocs.org.