September 05, 2018

What Causes Sepsis?


Many people are surprised to learn that the leading cause of death in U.S. hospitals is a condition called sepsis. In sepsis, the body’s response to an infection gets out of control. Agents naturally released into the bloodstream to fight infection cause inflammatory responses throughout the body. This inflammation can trigger a cascade of effects, including tissue damage, organ failure, and death when sepsis occurs.

What Causes Sepsis?

It’s important to know any infection, from the tiniest source (bug bite or hangnail) to more severe infections, such as pneumonia and meningitis can trigger a response that can lead to sepsis, severe sepsis, and septic shock. The infection can be bacterial, viral, fungal, or parasitic. Some people have a higher risk of developing sepsis: the very young and the very old, people with chronic or serious illnesses such as diabetes and cancer, and those who have impaired immune systems.

Sometimes called septicemia, the condition can produce clotting that reduces blood flow to various areas of the body and can quickly impact the limbs, lungs, kidneys, and liver.

The purpose of Sepsis Awareness Month is to draw attention to this condition, which is more common than most people realize and very serious. In fact, it is estimated that 30 percent of people diagnosed with severe sepsis do not survive. Those who do survive may be left with disabilities from chronic pain, amputations, organ dysfunction, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sepsis Symptoms

The Sepsis Alliance recommends the memory aid T-I-M-E for detecting signs of sepsis:

Temperature higher or lower than normal

Infection signs or symptoms

Mental decline, including confusion, sleepiness or difficulty being roused

Extremely ill, with severe pain or discomfort about which a person may say, “I feel like I’m going to die.”

Doctors tend to view the condition in three levels: sepsis, severe sepsis, and septic shock. The specific symptoms are:


Diagnosis is made if two or more of the following are present plus believed or confirmed infection:

  • Body temperature greater than 101 F (38.3 C) or less than 96.8 F (36 C)
  • Heart rate faster than 90 beats per minute
  • Respiratory rate above 20 breaths per minute

Severe Sepsis

A person’s diagnosis is changed to severe sepsis if sepsis symptoms are present plus one or more of the following, which may indicate an organ is failing:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Sudden change in mental status
  • Significantly decreased urine output
  • Decrease in platelet count
  • Trouble breathing
  • Abnormal heart pumping function

Septic Shock

A person is considered to be in septic shock if they have the symptoms of severe sepsis plus very low blood pressure that does not respond to simple fluid replacement.

Sepsis Risk Factors

Anyone can develop sepsis. However, these factors increase your risk:

  • A compromised immune system
  • A wound or injury such as a cut or burn
  • A significant health challenge that causes you to be in the hospital’s intensive care unit
  • Age (very old or very young)
  • An invasive device such as a breathing tube or intravenous catheter

Minimizing Sepsis Risk

Fortunately, there are actions you can take to decrease your risk of developing sepsis. You should:

  • Get vaccinated. Preventing conditions such as the flu, chicken pox, etc. can eliminate your body’s need to respond to them and potentially overreact.
  • Treat wounds and infections promptly. From a cut on your finger to a urinary tract infection (UTI), the sooner you take action to address the injury or illness, the less likely you are to develop sepsis.
  • Practice good hygiene. Actions such as washing your hands thoroughly with warm, soapy water multiple times a day can help prevent infections that can trigger sepsis.

Neither infections nor sepsis are completely preventable. However, taking steps to reduce your risk and getting prompt medical attention if you feel you may have sepsis can greatly increase your odds of serious consequences. If you’re outside of a medical facility and suspect sepsis, call 911 immediately and ensure you say, “I am concerned that I have sepsis.” This direct notification can make all the difference in the world.

At Baptist Health, patient safety is a team effort – and you’re the most important part of the team. The compassionate care is centered around you and your voice – we encourage you to speak up and be an advocate for your care – or the care of a loved one. Learn more about Patient Safety and our culture.

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