What is sepsis?

Sepsis or septicemia is a condition that occurs most commonly in hospitals in people who have had surgery or who have weakened immune systems, such as from cancer or HIV/AIDS.

A person may get the infection by way of a catheter (thin tube inserted into the body) or from a feeding tube or other device that pierces the skin or enters the body, allowing bacteria to enter the bloodstream and cause infection. The body's immune response then goes into high gear, dumping chemicals into the bloodstream to fight off infection. This chemical release overwhelms bodily function and organs, causing reactions such as:

  • Fever (over 101°F) or low body temperature (below 96.8°F)
  • Irregular heart beat
  • Rapid breathing

At this early stage, sepsis is usually treatable with antibiotics to fight infection. However, because many bacteria strains have become resistant to medication, the infection may advance to severe sepsis. This is recognizable by:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Change in mental status
  • Difficulty breathing

Your doctor may test your blood for decreased platelet count, another indication of severe sepsis. People at this stage also experience a decrease in urine output.

With these signs and symptoms and a continued drop in blood pressure (as blood flow is impaired and affects organ function), septic shock may set in. This is an extreme, life-threatening condition. With septic shock, your vital organs (lungs, liver, kidneys) can fail very quickly and you could easily die.

If you are in the hospital already, you will be taken to the intensive care unit (ICU) and likely given a combination of medications to help constrict your blood vessels (to control blood pressure) and fight infection while also receiving oxygen and IV fluids.

If you are not in the hospital but may have been infected due to recent surgery, or because you are more vulnerable due to age or an existing health condition, please call your doctor right away.


Emergency Medicine

Take comfort in knowing that the Emergency Care Team at Main Line Health is here for you when you need us most to provide compassionate care as quickly as possible.

Infectious Diseases

Main Line Health’s infectious disease specialists provide diagnosis, treatment and prevention of a variety of illnesses and infections.