September is Sepsis Awareness Month and 13 September is World Sepsis Day. Each September, healthcare professionals come together to help save lives by raising awareness on the life-threatening illness.
Sepsis, in its early stages, is often mistaken for the flu, when, in reality, sepsis claims more lives than bowel, prostate and breast cancer combined.
In fact, a recent study published in the Lancet has found that sepsis is the leading cause of deaths worldwide.
So what is sepsis?
Sepsis is a life-threatening condition where the body’s immune system goes into overdrive in response to an infection. It develops when the immune system releases chemicals into the bloodstream to fight an infection, and these chemicals cause inflammation throughout the entire body instead.
Septic shock, which is a severe kind of sepsis, is considered a medical emergency. Here the body’s blood pressure drops to a level that is dangerously low following an infection. This drop in blood pressure can lead to respiratory or heart failure, organ failure, stroke or even death.
How serious is it and who can get it?
Even though sepsis is potentially fatal, the illness can range from mild to severe depending on the case. In mild cases, the chances of recovery are significantly higher. However, when it comes to septic shock, there is a 50% mortality rate.
While many people do end up making a full recovery from sepsis, the disease can also result in serious health complications such as amputations, permanent brain or lung damage, kidney failure, and/or damage to the valves of the heart, leading to heart disease.
Sepsis can develop in anyone who has an uncontrolled infection. Infants, elderly and even otherwise healthy individuals can all be affected, however, older adults and younger children tend to be at a greater risk of developing the disease.
In addition, those with weakened immune systems and/or chronic illness such as cancer, lung disease, diabetes and kidney disease, are also at a higher risk of sepsis, as are those with recent severe illnesses or those who are hospitalised.
What causes it?
Sepsis is triggered by infections in general. The most common causes of sepsis are bacterial infections but sepsis can also occur as a result of viral infections. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the infections that end up leading to sepsis most often start in the lungs, gastrointestinal tract, urinary tract or skin. The most common causes are:
- Abdominal infection
- Bloodstream infection
- Kidney infection
Can sepsis occur as a result of a Covid-19 infection?
According to the Global Sepsis Alliance, Covid-19 can cause sepsis due to a number of variables including direct viral invasion and/or the presence of a bacterial or viral co-infection.
The age of the patient also plays a role. Recent research has shown that hospitalised Covid-19 patients are up to 22 percent more likely to develop serious sepsis than patients hospitalised due to an influenza infection. Patients hospitalised due to Covid-19 are also four times more likely to develop severe septic shock.
How is sepsis treated?
When treating sepsis, timing is crucial. According to the Sepsis Alliance, every hour of delayed treatment increases the risk of death by up to 8 percent. The Sepsis Alliance also predicts that up to 80 percnet of deaths related to sepsis could be prevented through rapid diagnosis and treatment.
Sepsis is typically treated using a combination of antibiotics to help treat the infection, as well as IV fluids to prevent blood pressure from dropping. Depending on the severity of the case and the patient’s condition, other techniques can be used and other medications can also be administered.
What are the five most common symptoms of sepsis?
At first, sepsis symptoms can be easily confused by the flu and chest infections due to the similarity of their symptoms. The five key things to look out for when it comes to sepsis signs and symptoms are:
- High or low body temperatures. In some patients, sepsis can cause a high fever. In other cases, hypothermia can occur instead. Hypothermia is considered extremely dangerous and has a higher risk of fatality. This drop in body temperature can also cause severe, uncontrolled shivering.
- Confusion disorientation. Inflammation and swelling can occur because of sepsis. This can make it very difficult for sepsis patients to breathe, leading to a drop in the body’s oxygen levels. This low oxygen level can then cause mental confusion and delirium.
- High heart rate or low blood pressure. Blood pressure can become extremely low as sepsis progresses, leading to organ failure as not enough oxygen reaches the body’s organs.
- Not passing enough urine. When oxygen levels are low, organs can fail. When kidneys fail, this can lead to a drop in urine output.
- Blotchy or cold arms and legs. Sepsis causes blood clots. When this happens, it is harder for nutrients to reach the tissues in the extremities such as the fingers, hands, arms, legs, feet and toes. As such, these deprived tissues begin to die. When this happens, initially the skin looks blotchy and may appear to be blue-ish in color. In severe cases, the areas of dead skin can potentially turn black in colour and these limbs may need to be amputated.
If you have had an infection that hasn’t responded to treatment, and if you’ve been experiencing symptoms that are in line with those outlined above causing you to suspect that you may have sepsis, it is extremely important to seek immediate treatment.
Timely intervention is key.
Maha El Akoum, MPH, is a public health professional currently working as Head of Content at World Innovation Summit for Health [WISH].