Septicemia (Sepsis) – Definition, Causes, Symptoms, Treatment

Septicemia or sepsis is a rare type of blood infection that causes poisoning of blood. In common terms it is known as blood poisoning. Severe bacterial infection is the major cause of septicemia. It is characterized by symptoms like lowered blood pressure, change in mental state and fast respiratory rate. Sepsis is a serious condition and should be treated on emergency basis. Intravenous antibiotics and supported respiration are given for the patient depending on his/her condition.

Latest definition of sepsis states it is a life threatening condition causing organ dysfunction due to the severe infection and poor response by the host. According to TICDTF (Third international consensus definitions task force), a person having two symptoms given above is considered to have sepsis.

Under normal condition, the body’s immune system responds to any infection and tries to destroy them. But the response of defense can be extremely fast sometimes causing release of chemicals into the blood leading to inflammation of the entire body. In very severe cases, septic shock can develop, causing death. According to the data given by CDC, every year around million deaths occur in the USA due to septicemia.

Sepsis Stages :

Septicemia can be categorized into 3 stages.

  1. First stage is mild and has mild symptoms like fever and fast heart rate.
  2. In the second stage, the person has problems in breathing and malfunctioning of the organs can occur.
  3. In the final or third stage, the condition becomes very severe causing very low blood pressure and septic shock.

Similarly sepsis can be divided into many types based on infection like MRSA sepsis, VRE sepsis, urosepsis, wound sepsis and neonatal sepsis.


Symptoms Of Sepsis :

Symptoms of septicemia start slowly with fever and general weakness and progresses to severe gradually.

Some of the common symptoms of sepsis are given below :-

  • Increased heart beat (more than 90 beats in a minute)
  • High fever above 101 degree F or chills below 96.8 F
  • High respiration (increased breathing) more than 20 in a minute
  • The person should have at least one of the above two signs to be diagnosed as septicemia.
  • Very low urine output
  • Sudden change in mental position
  • Very low platelet count
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Increased heart pumping
  • Extremely low blood pressure
  • Unconsciousness

How Severe Is Septicemia ?

Sepsis or septicemia can be mild or sometimes life threatening. Most of the people with mild sepsis would recover shortly, responding to medical treatment. But people with septic shock have increased mortality rate (50%).

Sepsis Causes :

Septicemia is caused by bacterial infection and in rare cases by fungal infection. Bacteria would first invade any specific organ or sometimes on gastrointestinal tract. Infecting agents would gradually enter the bloodstream and can reach and infect any organ. Severe infection like pneumonia, infection of abdomen and kidney infection can progress to sepsis. Gram negative bacteria like E.Coli, E.corrodens and H. influenza can cause sepsis. Streptococcus bacteria can invade any organ causing septicemia. Sepsis can become contagious and the infected person is likely to spread the infection to others.


Who Are At Risk?

Septicemia can occur to anyone including newborns. People with weakened immunity like young children and older adults, people who are ill for long time, people who are admitted in intensive care for long, people who use and depend on catheters or similar devices for long periods and people with severe burns can get septicemia.

Complications :

Complications can range from mild to severe, depending on individual’s health and age. As the infection spreads into blood vital organs like heart, kidney, brain and liver can get infected and it may lose partial function. Blood clots can develop in vital organs which travel to reach extremities of the body like arms and legs and tissue death can occur in such places leading to amputation. A person who recovers from septic shock is at risk of infection in future.

Sepsis Diagnosis :

  • Many times septicemia in early stage go unnoticed since the symptoms are mild and detected as other illness.
  • Complete blood test is to be done for detecting any organ dysfunction, infection, blood clots, reduced supply of oxygen and imbalance in the level of electrolytes.
  • Further your doctor may request for urine analysis, sputum test, and wound secretion test for detecting the type of bacteria causing the infection.
  • Imaging test like X-ray of lungs, CT scan of abdomen, ultrasound scan and MRI test may be done depending on the situation.

Sepsis Treatment :

Early detection of septicemia increases the chances of survival. A person diagnosed with sepsis should be admitted in the hospital and monitored closely until recovery.

  • Drugs – Antibiotics are the first line treatment for septicemia. Broad spectrum antibiotics are given through vein until the type of bacteria is detected. Once the bacteria causing infection is determined, suitable antibiotic is administered intravenously.
  • Vasopressors - For patients with very low blood pressure, vasopressor medications are given.
  • Further drugs like corticosteroids, insulin and immune-suppressant drugs are given as per the situation.
  • Septic Shock – Treatment for patients with septic shock is to be done on emergency basis. Supportive oxygen supply is started and volumes of IV fluids are injected to improve the health condition and to restore the organ dysfunction. For people with impaired kidney function, dialysis is done to remove toxic substances and wastes.
  • In rare cases surgery is done for removing abscesses due to infection.

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