We humans are complex creatures. Our internal workings are vast ecosystems of good bacteria and helpful cells all working in concert with one another. But all it takes is one bad bacterium to get in and begin wreaking havoc within these carefully-woven systems.
When an infection spreads and becomes too difficult for our body to fight off naturally, sepsis can occur. It may seem like a strange factoid, but sepsis is actually one of the leading causes of death in hospitals in the United States. Surviving sepsis depends on knowing how to recognize it, and how to treat it.
Sepsis at its Core
The most basic definition of sepsis is a body-wide inflammatory response to infection. Sepsis spreads, injuring tissues and organs and if it is allowed to persist, can even result in death. Most of the harm caused by sepsis is often derived from the immune response of the disease rather than the actual infection itself.
Minor to Major
It’s important to remember that sepsis isn’t always the result of large-scale infections. It can come from something as minor as a cut, cavity, or ingrown toenail. If the invading bacteria are not killed off or if they make their way into the blood while strengthened, the resulting infection can spread to other parts of the body.
Got a Leak
Sepsis can also cause blood clots to form in the veins and arteries. This inhibits oxygen delivery and directly correlates to vital organ failure. The most severe sepsis causes a condition called systemic vasodilation, resulting in capillary permeability. Essentially, this means that fluid, blood in this case, can leak out of the blood vessels thereby causing septic shock.
Dead and Gone
It is when this happens, as organs fail and blood no longer stays where it’s supposed to, that 40 percent of septic patients die. So how can we tell the warning signs before our organs begun to fall like ninepins? Thankfully, there a number of ways that we as patients can discern what’s happening inside us before heading to the hospital.
There are a number of warning signs that will help doctors and nurses accurately assess whether or not their patient is experiencing sepsis. For example, if you possess a temperature greater than 100.4 °F or less than 96.8 °F, if your pulse is over 90 beats per minute, or your white blood cell count is unusually elevated, you might have sepsis.
In addition to these vital signs, many people experiencing sepsis may actually look a lot better than they feel. They may even look pretty healthy. Tissue hypoxia, a condition in which the body or a region of the body is deprived of adequate oxygen supply, and organ failure aren’t always overt, even in severely septic people.
All of this seems to strike before hypotension and cryptic shock, both of which are obvious signs of near-fatal septic shock. It is usually once a patient has developed hypotension, that they begin to look the most ill. By then, it is often too late to do anything for them. It is therefore prudent for those experiencing unusual symptoms to seek medical help immediately.
The thing about sepsis is that it doesn’t discriminate, neither by age nor by degree of physical health. If an infection has taken root, it can run rampant regardless of how often you exercise. That being said, sepsis is most common in the elderly and in those with HIV, hepatitis, organ transplants, or on chemotherapy.
Healthy or Unhealthy
Just as it can affect the immunocompromised and the infirm, sepsis can also affect healthy children and young adults. Minor injuries and some common illnesses, ranging from appendicitis to the flu, can result in sepsis if improperly treated. People who have experienced these ailments should always follow-up with their doctor following treatment, just in case.
Sepsis can also be caused by persistent infections like pneumonia, urinary tract infections, meningitis, and ear infections. There are millions of different types of harmful bacteria out there and if our systems are weakened or busy fighting off other types, then some might be able to get in and spread.
This is more of a signal for doctors, but increased levels of lactic acid in the body might indicate that sepsis is forthcoming. In severe sepsis, lactic acid is released into the bloodstream and this slows the metabolism. You may feel this as a muscle ache or fatigue even after you feel you’ve recovered from an infection.
Many people experiencing the later stages of severe sepsis might actually begin to feel panicky. It’s similar to the way that those experiencing an imminent heart attack feel a sense of doom around them. It’ll feel like you’re having a panic attack, you’ll hyperventilate, sweat, and begin to feel dizzy.
Infections a’ Plenty
If you’re prone to infections, whether they be something as simple as athlete’s foot to as complicated as a kidney infection, you should always be wary of the possibility of sepsis. A good way to minimize the spread of infection is to fold more home remedies into your diet. Things like garlic, ginger, and apple cider vinegar are all products that fight off infection and bacteria. They won’t cure sepsis, but they’ll help.
Just as low or high fever can be a clear indication of a septic infection, so too can chills. If you’ve ever had the flu, you know that chills are an uncomfortable, worrying symptom of the virus. Well, chills happen with sepsis too, and if you’re getting them, it may mean that the infection has spread to dangerous levels.
If your infection began in a certain spot, be it a tooth, a surgical site, or a stubbed toe, then it’s likely that pain will have spread to the surrounding area. This is generally a process that happens over the course of several days, so if you notice pain spreading from a finger wound, for example, get to the doctor before it gets any worse and you have to amputate the limb.
Low blood pressure or increased heart rate are both signs that your infection might have reached your heart, and that’s a dangerous place for it to be. In fact, low blood pressure might indicate that you are in the critical stage between when an infection is dangerous, and when it becomes deadly. IV and antibiotics may need to be used in order to treat at this stage.
The timely administration of antibiotics is one of the most effective ways to treat sepsis, at least before things like hypotension begin. Thanks to the proven effectiveness of a number of antibiotic cocktails, many paramedic transport teams have begun taking these along with them for when they pick up patients.
Antibiotics en Route
That said, administering them while transporting patients in ambulances can be tricky though, and investigations are still ongoing into the feasibility of this practice. Regardless of this, the studies look promising and would be a great additional tool for EMS personnel to help stabilize septic patients en route before things get even worse.
Unfortunately, once septic shock begins, there’s very little that doctors can do to help. In fact, if IV fluids and antibiotics aren’t administered within an hour of arrival, it may be too late for many patients. Thus, knowing the early warning signs and causes of this deadly condition can help save your life.
The Internet can provide advice on how to recognize the signs, but it ultimately falls upon the patient to determine if they need to take the next step and call 911. It is important that any reader who recognizes any of these indicators or potential causes of sepsis within themselves seek medical attention right away.