Many parents are learning about the dangers of sepsis through the tragic story of 12-year-old Rory Staunton, who died after contracting the condition from a cut that was failed to be cleaned following a tumble during gym class.
Sepsis is a frightening condition. The leading cause of death in hospitals, it affects 30 million people globally a year — killing 6 million babies and children. In the United States, at least 250,000 Americans die a year from sepsis. That’s more than breast cancer, AIDS and strokes combined.
Most harrowing: it’s completely preventable, treatable and curable — though most Americans are completely unaware of it.
Here’s everything you need to know about sepsis.
WHAT IS SEPSIS AND HOW DO YOU GET IT?
Sepsis is the body’s extreme, over-active, life-threatening response to an infection.
It’s usually triggered by a bacterial infection, according to Sepsis.org, with germs entering into the body through a number of exposure points and multiplying. Think a scraped knee, a cut finger, a tooth abscess or a more serious medical problem like a urinary tract infection, appendicitis, etc.
Though a person’s immune system usually fights bacteria to prevent infection — or viral or fungal invasions, which can also sometimes be at play — there are times the immune system stops fighting the invading threat and begins to turn on itself. Researchers have yet to determine why this happens, but they do know one thing: this is the start of sepsis.
As this occurs, inflammatory responses throughout the body will begin to pop up. Difficulty in breathing, low or no urine output and changes in mental status will begin. Blood flow to vital organs will become impaired, causing blood clots in the brain, heart and kidneys and overall tissue failure.
At its most severe level, the body will go into septic shock and lead to death.
WHO CAN GET SEPSIS?
Anyone and everyone — though those with weakened immune systems, like babies, very young children, the elderly, and those with chronic illnesses (diabetes, AIDS, cancer, or liver disease) — are at higher risk.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
Doctors can have a difficult time diagnosing sepsis. As the Rory Staunton Foundation explained, the symptoms at first can look like less serious ailments and are always presented as a combination of things, rather than a single sign.
- A fever above 101 degrees or below 96.8 degrees
- Clammy or sweaty skin
- Extreme pain or discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- A heart rate above 90 beats per second
- Confusion or disorientation
If two of the following signs are present, patients should seek immediate emergency medical assistance.
HOW IS IT DIAGNOSED?
The first step is asking your nurse or doctor, “Could this be sepsis?”
Doctors will start by checking for the above symptoms. A blood test will show if there’s an abnormal white blood cell count, which is considered a common indicator of sepsis, or the presence of bacteria and other infectious agents. X-ray and scans are also often used to locate the infection.
HOW IS IT TREATED?
Nearly all patients with severe sepsis require treatment in an intensive care unit.
The first thing that doctors need to do is stop the infection, while preventing a drop in blood pressure and protecting vital organs. For that, doctors will turn to the combination of antibiotics and intravenous (IV) fluids, respectively.
Patients with more serious conditions might need a breathing tube or kidney dialysis. Sometimes surgery is needed to help remove tissue damaged by the infection. In the most extreme case, limbs that have succumbed to gangrene will be amputated.
Scientists have yet to develop a medicine that specifically targets the aggressive immune response seen with sepsis, the National Institute of the General Medical Sciences reported.
ARE THERE LONG-TERM EFFECTS?
For most, no — treatment will provide a complete recovery. But for some, preeminent organ damage might occur (this is especially true with those with pre-existing chronic diseases). Others have experienced impaired physical or neurocognitive functioning, mood disorders and a low quality of life.
Studies have also shown that those with sepsis are at higher risk for various medical conditions since their immune system are disrupted. The mortality rate for septic shock is nearly 50 percent.
WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO PREVENT SEPSIS?
According to Sepsis.org, every cut, scrape, or break in the skin can allow bacteria enter your body that could cause an infection. For this reason, it’s essential that all wounds be cleaned as quickly as possible and be kept clean.
- Always wash your hands before touching an open wound. If possible, wear clean disposable gloves.
- If possible, wear clean disposable gloves. If the wound is deep, gaping, or has jagged edges and can’t be closed easily, it may need stitches. See your healthcare provider as soon as possible.
- If the wound does not appear to need stitches, rinse it and the surrounding area with clean (not soapy) water. Gently running water over the wound can help remove any dirt or debris that may be inside. If you believe that there is still debris in the wound, this should be checked by a healthcare provider.
- If desired, apply an antibiotic cream or ointment.
- Cover the wound to protect it from dirt if necessary.
- Watch for signs of infection: redness around the wound, skin around the wound warm to touch, increased pain, and/or discharge from the wound. Consult your physician or nurse practitioner if you suspect you may have an infection.