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What is septicemia?

Septicemia is a serious bloodstream infection. It’s also known as bacteremia, or blood poisoning. Septicemia occurs when a bacterial infection elsewhere in the body, such as in the lungs or skin, enters the bloodstream. This is dangerous because the bacteria and their toxins can be carried through the bloodstream to your entire body.

Septicemia can quickly become life-threatening. It must be treated in a hospital. If it’s left untreated, septicemia can progress to sepsis.

Septicemia and sepsis aren’t the same. Sepsis is a serious complication of septicemia. Sepsis is when inflammation throughout the body occurs. This inflammation can cause blood clots and block oxygen from reaching vital organs, resulting in organ failure. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that over 1 million Americans get severe sepsis each year. Between 28 and 50 percent of these patients may die from the condition. When the inflammation occurs with extremely low blood pressure, it’s called septic shock. Septic shock is fatal in many cases.

What causes septicemia?

Septicemia is caused by an infection in another part of your body. This infection is typically severe. Many types of bacteria can lead to septicemia. The exact source of the infection often can’t be determined. The most common infections that lead to septicemia are:

Bacteria from these infections enter the bloodstream and multiply rapidly, causing immediate symptoms.

People who are already in the hospital for something else, such as a surgery, are at a higher risk of developing septicemia. Secondary infections can occur while in the hospital. These infections are often more dangerous because the bacteria may already be resistant to antibiotics. You’re also at a higher risk of developing septicemia if you:

  • have severe wounds or burns
  • are very young or very old
  • have a compromised immune system, which can occur from diseases such as HIV or leukemia
  • have a urinary or intravenous catheter
  • are on mechanical ventilation
  • are receiving medical treatments that weaken your immune system, such as chemotherapy or steroid injections

What are the symptoms of septicemia?

The symptoms of septicemia usually start very quickly. Even in the first stages of the illness, a person can look very sick. They may follow an injury, surgery, or another localized (confined to one location) infection, like pneumonia. The most common initial symptoms are:

  • chills
  • elevated body temperature (fever)
  • very fast respiration
  • rapid heart rate

More severe symptoms will begin to emerge as the septicemia progresses without proper treatment. These include the following:

It’s crucial to get to the hospital right away if you or someone else is showing signs of septicemia. Never take a "wait and see" approach or try to treat the problem at home.

Complications of septicemia

Septicemia has a number of serious complications. These complications may be fatal if left untreated or if treatment is delayed for too long.


Sepsis occurs when your body has a strong immune response to the infection. This leads to widespread inflammation throughout the body. It’s called severe sepsis if it leads to organ failure. People with chronic diseases, such as HIV or cancer, are at a higher risk of sepsis. This is because they have a weakened immune system and can’t fight off the infection on their own.

Septic shock

One complication of septicemia is a serious drop in blood pressure. This is called septic shock. Toxins released by the bacteria in the bloodstream can cause extremely low blood flow, which may result in organ or tissue damage. Septic shock is a medical emergency. People with septic shock are usually cared for in a hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU). You may need to be put on a ventilator, or breathing machine, if you’re in septic shock.

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)

A third complication of septicemia is acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). This is a life-threatening condition that prevents enough oxygen from reaching your lungs and blood. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), ARDS is fatal in about one-third of cases. It often results in some level of permanent lung damage. It can also damage your brain, which can lead to memory problems.

How is septicemia diagnosed?

Diagnosing septicemia and sepsis are some of the biggest challenges facing doctors. It can be difficult to find the exact cause of the infection. Diagnosis will usually involve a wide range of tests.

Your doctor will evaluate your symptoms and ask about your medical history. They’ll perform a physical examination to look for low blood pressure or body temperature. The doctor may also look for signs of conditions that more commonly occur along with septicemia. These conditions include pneumonia, meningitis, and cellulitis.

Your doctor may want to perform tests on multiple types of fluids to help confirm a bacterial infection. These may include the following:

  • urine
  • wound secretions and skin sores
  • respiratory secretions
  • blood

Your doctor may look for your cell and platelet counts and also order tests to analyze your blood clotting.

Your doctor may also look at the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in your blood if septicemia is causing you to have breathing issues.

If signs of infection are not obvious, your doctor may order test to look more closely at specific organs and tissue, such as:

Treatment for septicemia

Septicemia that has started to affect your organs or tissue function is a medical emergency. It must be treated at a hospital. Many people with septicemia are admitted to a hospital’s ICU for treatment and recovery.

Your treatment will depend on several factors, including:

  • your age
  • your overall health
  • the extent of your condition
  • your tolerance for certain medications

Antibiotics are used to treat the bacterial infection that’s causing septicemia. There isn’t typically enough time to figure out which type of bacteria is causing the infection. Initial treatment will usually use "broad-spectrum" antibiotics. These are designed to work against a wide range of bacteria at once. A more focused antibiotic may be used if the specific bacterium is identified.

You may get fluids and other medications intravenously to maintain your blood pressure or to prevent blood clots from forming. You may also get oxygen through a mask or ventilator if you experience breathing issues as a result of septicemia.

Is there any way to prevent septicemia?

Bacterial infections are the underlying cause of septicemia. See a doctor right away if you think you have this condition. If your infection can be effectively treated with antibiotics in the early stages, you may be able to prevent the bacteria from entering your bloodstream. Parents can help protect children from septicemia by ensuring they stay up to date with their vaccinations.

If you already have a compromised immune system, the following precautions can help prevent septicemia:

What is the outlook?

When diagnosed very early, septicemia can be treated effectively with antibiotics. Research efforts are focused on finding out better ways to diagnose the condition earlier.

If you develop the symptoms of septicemia or sepsis after surgery or an infection, seek medical care right away. Even with treatment, it’s possible to have permanent organ damage. This is especially true for people with pre-existing conditions that affect how well their immune systems work.

There have been many recent medical developments in diagnosis, treatment, monitoring, and training for septicemia. This has helped reduce mortality rates. According to a study published in Critical Care Medicine, the hospital mortality rate from severe sepsis has decreased from 47 percent (between 1991 and 1995) to 29 percent (between 2006 and 2009).

Content licensed from:

Written by: Krista O'Connell and Jacquelyn Cafasso
Medically reviewed on: Nov 05, 2015: Deborah Weatherspoon, Ph.D, MSN, RN, CRNA

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.
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