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What Is Sepsis & Should I Be Worried About It?

Sepsis accounts for 1 out of every 3 hospital deaths — so why don't we know more about it?

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You’ve probably heard the word “sepsis” before — probably as the cause of death in a news story — but what does it really mean and why is it so deadly?

According to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, sepsis is a complication that is caused by the intense response of the immune system to an infection. This immune response triggers widespread inflammation, which in turn impairs blood flow and leads to the damage of important organs, the institute said.

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The institute noted that sepsis can occur unpredictably and lead to the rapid deterioration of a patient. It is one of the leading causes of death in hospital intensive care units and one of the leading causes of patients being readmitted to hospitals.

In fact, “it’s a very common condition,” Dr. Christopher Seymour, assistant professor of critical care and emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, told SheKnows. He noted that there are about 2 million cases of sepsis per year in the U.S., and that sepsis accounts for 1 out of every 3 hospital deaths.

And it’s hard to diagnose: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that many of the symptoms of sepsis — including diarrhea, vomiting, fever, sore throat, pain, shortness of breath and an increased heart rate — are the same as other conditions, making it difficult to diagnose early on. To treat sepsis, doctors try to first treat the underlying infection as well as to keep patients’ vital organs working, the CDC explained.

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Sometimes, more intensive interventions are needed. Patients may need to be hooked up to a machine to assist with their breathing or undergo kidney dialysis. And while many patients recover completely, some of them can experience permanent organ damage.

Those most at risk? People with weakened immune systems, the elderly and very young and those who are chronically ill, said Seymour. And despite its association with hospitals, Seymour noted that about 8 out of every 10 cases of sepsis are actually community-based, meaning they are acquired outside the hospital — most often in the form of infections in the lung, like pneumonia.

The good news is that the outcomes for sepsis are improving with the overall mortality rate hovering at around 10 percent, Seymour said. That’s because both patients and hospitals are more aware of what sepsis is and the importance of early treatments like antibiotics.

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“In sepsis, time matters, and getting appropriate treatment quickly saves lives,” said Seymour. Patients can learn more about the risks and early symptoms of sepsis on qSOFA, a platform whose team Seymour is a part of.

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