Diseases & Conditions A - Z
powered by Talix


What Is Sepsis?

Sepsis is a life-threatening illness caused by your body’s response to an infection. Your immune system protects you from many illnesses and infections, but it’s also possible for it to go into overdrive in response to an infection.

Sepsis develops when the chemicals the immune system releases into the bloodstream to fight an infection cause inflammation throughout the entire body instead. Severe cases of sepsis can lead to septic shock, which is a medical emergency.

There are more than 1 million cases of sepsis each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This type of infection kills more than 258,000 Americans a year.

What Are the Symptoms of Sepsis?

There are three stages of sepsis: sepsis, severe sepsis, and septic shock. Sepsis can happen while you’re still in the hospital recovering from a procedure, but this isn’t always the case. It’s important to seek immediate medical attention if you have any of the below symptoms. The earlier you seek treatment, the greater your chances of survival.


Symptoms of sepsis include:

  • a fever above 101ºF or a temperature below 96.8ºF
  • heart rate higher than 90 beats per minute
  • breathing rate higher than 20 breaths per minute
  • probable or confirmed infection

You must have two of these symptoms before a doctor can diagnose sepsis.

Severe Sepsis

Severe sepsis occurs when there’s organ failure. You must have one or more of the following signs to be diagnosed with severe sepsis:

  • patches of discolored skin
  • decreased urination
  • changes in mental ability
  • low platelet (blood clotting cells) count
  • problems breathing
  • abnormal heart functions
  • chills due to fall in body temperature
  • unconsciousness
  • extreme weakness

Septic Shock

Symptoms of septic shock include the symptoms of severe sepsis, plus a very low blood pressure.

The Serious Effects of Sepsis

Although sepsis is potentially life-threatening, the illness ranges from mild to severe. There's a higher rate of recovery in mild cases. Septic shock has a 50 percent mortality rate, according to the Mayo Clinic. Having a case of severe sepsis increases your risk of a future infection.

Severe sepsis or septic shock can also cause complications. Small blood clots can form throughout your body. These clots block the flow of blood and oxygen to vital organs and other parts of your body. This increases the risk of organ failure and tissue death (gangrene).

What Causes Sepsis?

Any infection can trigger sepsis, but the following types of infections are more likely to cause sepsis:

  • pneumonia
  • abdominal infection
  • kidney infection
  • bloodstream infection

According to the CDC, the number of sepsis cases in the United States increases every year. The number of people hospitalized with sepsis between 2000 and 2008 increased from 621,000 to 1,141,000. Possible reasons for the increase include:

  • an aging population because sepsis is more common in seniors
  • an increase in antibiotic resistance, which happens when an antibiotic loses its ability to resist or kill bacteria
  • an increase in the number of people with illnesses that weaken their immune systems

Who Is at Risk for Sepsis?

Although some people have a higher risk of infection, anyone can get sepsis. People who are at risk include:

  • young children and seniors
  • people with weaker immune systems, such as those with HIV or those in chemotherapy treatment for cancer
  • people being treated in an intensive care unit (ICU)
  • people exposed to invasive devices, such as intravenous catheters or breathing tubes

How is Sepsis Diagnosed?

If you have symptoms of sepsis, your doctor will order tests to make a diagnosis and determine the severity of your infection.

One of the first tests is a blood test. Your blood is checked for complications like:

  • infection
  • clotting problems
  • abnormal liver or kidney function
  • decreased amount of oxygen
  • an imbalance in minerals called electrolytes that affect the amount of water in your body as well as the acidity of your blood

Depending on your symptoms and the results of your blood test, your doctor may order other tests, including:

  • a urine test (to check for bacteria in your urine)
  • a wound secretion test (to check an open wound for an infection)
  • a mucus secretion test (to identify germs responsible for an infection)

If your doctor can’t determine the source of an infection using the above tests, your doctor may order an internal view of your body using one of the following:

  • X-rays to view the lungs
  • computed tomography (CT) scans to view possible infections in the appendix, pancreas, or bowel area
  • ultrasounds to view infections in the gallbladder or ovaries
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which can identify soft tissue infections

How Is Sepsis Treated?

Sepsis can quickly progress to septic shock and death if it is left untreated. Doctors use a number of medications to treat sepsis, including:

  • antibiotics via IV to fight infection
  • vasoactive medications to increase blood pressure
  • insulin to stabilize blood sugar
  • corticosteroids to reduce inflammation
  • painkillers

Severe sepsis may also require large amounts of IV fluids and a respirator for breathing. Dialysis might be necessary if the kidneys are affected. Kidneys help filter harmful wastes, salt, and excess water from the blood. In dialysis, a machine performs these functions.

In some cases, surgery may be needed to remove the source of an infection. This includes draining a pus-filled abscess or removing infected tissue.


It’s important to remember that sepsis is a medical emergency. Every minute and hour counts, especially since the infection can spread quickly. There’s no one symptom of sepsis, but rather it has a combination of symptoms. Get immediate medical attention if you suspect that you have sepsis, especially if you have a known infection.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Krista O'Connell and Valencia Higuera
Published on: Sep 26, 2015
Medically reviewed on: Sep 26, 2015: The Healthline Medical Review Team

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
Symptom Search
Enter your symptoms in our Symptom Checker to find out possible causes of your symptoms. Go.
Drug Interaction Checker
Enter any list of prescription drugs and see how they interact with each other and with other substances. Go.
Pill Identifier
Enter its color and shape information, and this tool helps you identify it. Go.
Drugs A-Z
Find information on drug interactions, side effects, and more. Go.




Discounts & Benefits

From companies that meet the high standards of service and quality set by AARP.

Member Benefits Outback

Members save 15% on lunch and dinner every day at Outback Steakhouse.

Member Benefits AT&T Wireless Cell Phone

Members save 10% on monthly usage charges for qualified AT&T wireless plans.

Member Benefit Swipe Save Discount

Members can find current offers on select items from Family Dollar at

Member Benefits

Join or renew today! AARP members receive exclusive member benefits & affect social change.

Rewards for Good

Your Points Balance:

Learn More

Earn points for completing free online activities designed to enrich your life.

Find more ways to earn points

Redeem your points to save on merchandise, travel, and more.

Find more ways to redeem points


African American, Asian Community Page

AARP In Your Corner

Visit Black Community, Español  and Asian Community pages.

AARP Drivers Safety logo

Driver Safety Program

Register at a location near you to keep your driving skills sharp. 

Create the Good

Create The Good 

Find opportunities to volunteer in your neighborhood. 

AARP Drive to End Hunger Logo

Drive to End Hunger

NASCAR champ Jeff Gordon teams up with AARP Foundation.