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What Are the Warning Signs of Sepsis?

Medically Reviewed on 12/30/2020

What is sepsis?

Sepsis, or blood poisoning, is a potentially life-threatening by the body in response to an infection. Warnings signs include high fever, low blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, breathing difficulties, drastic body temperature change, worsening infection, mental decline, and severe illness.

Sepsis, or septicemia, is the body’s extreme and life-threatening response to an infection. This condition is also called blood poisoning and can lead to organ failure, severe tissue damage, and even death. 

Normally, your immune system is on your side, fighting bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites to prevent infections. Medical experts aren’t sure why, but sometimes your immune system stops fighting the invading germs and starts fighting itself. This is how sepsis develops.

If the infection progresses, it can lead to a condition known as septic shock, which has a death rate as high as 50%. Sepsis is an emergency that requires immediate medical attention. 

More than 1.7 million Americans develop sepsis each year. Nearly 270,000 people die from the condition.

Signs and symptoms of sepsis

Sepsis doesn’t have one specific warning sign. It typically involves a combination of symptoms. If you’re able to recognize these symptoms in yourself or a loved one, you can seek medical treatment quickly and avoid entering septic shock. Early intervention could save your life. 

Early warnings signs include:

  • High fever
  • Low blood pressure
  • Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia)
  • Breathing difficulties 

There are other telltale signs of infection, including: 

Drastic body temperature changes 

When you develop a viral or bacterial infection, your temperature may rise to 100 degrees or higher, which means you have a fever. At the opposite end of the spectrum is hypothermia, when your body temperature drops. Any significant temperature change, high or low, may be a sign of sepsis. 

Sudden worsening of an infection 

Infections like pneumonia, strep throat, or even a small cut will show symptoms in certain areas of the body. A urinary tract infection (UTI), for example, will cause burning when you pee or general discomfort in your bladder. When the infection starts to spread, you’ll start noticing other sudden symptoms, including high fever, fatigue, or unexplained pain. 

If you’ve recently had surgery, you should pay attention to any changes in your body. You may have an infection and not know it. 

Mental changes 

Sepsis can cause a decline in your cognitive abilities. You may start to feel confused, forgetful, or extremely tired. 

Extreme illness 

Severe pain or discomfort is another warning sign of sepsis. This isn’t just any old sore throat or stomach pain. It’s the worst sensation you’ve ever felt. 


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Causes of sepsis

Sepsis occurs when an infection in your body triggers a chain reaction that sends your immune system into overdrive {Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Get Ahead of Sepsis – Know the Risks. Spot the Signs. Act Fast.”}. The most common cause is a bacterial infection, although other types of infections can lead to sepsis. 

Infections may start in or spread to your lungs, stomach, kidneys, or bladder. A small cut could be the cause, or you could develop an infection after a surgical procedure. Sepsis can occur without warning in people who don’t know that they have an infection. 

If you have any infection, you could get sepsis. However, certain people have an increased risk, including: 

  • Adults over the age of 65
  • People with chronic diseases like lung cancer and diabetes
  • Those who have weakened immune systems, including people with HIV
  • Pregnant women
  • Children under the age of 1

Diagnosing sepsis

Sepsis isn’t diagnosed based on an infection itself. A doctor will diagnose you when you develop symptoms related to sepsis. If you have more than one warning sign, already have an infection, or are in one of the higher-risk groups, your doctor might suspect sepsis. 

Sepsis changes to severe sepsis when there are signs of organ dysfunction, including: 

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Low levels of urine
  • Abnormal liver tests  
  • Mental changes, like feeling disoriented 

If you develop severe sepsis, you’ll need to be treated in an intensive care unit. The most severe level is septic shock. This is diagnosed when your blood pressure suddenly drops to dangerously low levels.

Treatment for sepsis

If you have symptoms or warning signs of sepsis, consider it a medical emergency and get to a hospital immediately. You’ll need treatment as soon as possible, which can include: 

  • Antibiotics
  • Oxygen
  • Intravenous (IV) fluids to support your organs
  • A ventilator for breathing problems 
  • Kidney dialysis
  • Surgery to remove infected tissue 

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition, and the quicker you receive medical attention, the better your outcome will be. 

Latest Infectious Disease News

Medically Reviewed on 12/30/2020


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Get Ahead of Sepsis – Know the Risks. Spot the Signs. Act Fast.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “How is sepsis diagnosed and treated?”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Septicemia.”

MedlinePlus: “Sepsis.”

Sepsis Alliance: “Symptoms.”

Sepsis Alliance: “What is Sepsis?”

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