Sepsis: The Common Cause of Death You’ve Never Heard Of

Charles Summerour was traveling for business when he acquired an everyday infection that almost killed him.

 After initially ignoring the symptoms of what turned out to be a urinary tract infection (UTI), the 54-year-old journalist began to feel markedly worse as the day wore on. He sought medical attention from a doctor, who promptly sent him to the hospital.

Within hours of being admitted, Summerour’s blood pressure had dropped to dangerous levels, his kidneys were failing and his body was slipping into a little-known but very deadly condition called septic shock.

 What Is Sepsis?

Caused by the body’s exaggerated immune response to an infection, sepsis is the most common cause of death in hospitalized patients in the United States. This condition is also referred to as blood poisoning and septicemia. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the number of people hospitalized with sepsis has more than doubled over an eight-year period.

The human body is constantly bombarded with potentially infectious viruses and bacteria, and people with healthy immune systems are usually able to fight off these microbes with little effort. But, when an infection isn’t subdued quickly enough, the immune system can kick into a dangerous state of overdrive, causing the body to injure itself in an attempt to get rid of invaders. If left too long, sepsis can escalate into a fatal condition called septic shock, which is marked by extensive tissue damage and organ failure.

Anyone can develop sepsis at any age. It can start off as practically anything, including a case of the flu, pneumonia, a sinus infection, a UTI, or an infected bug bite or cut. What is scary is that these seemingly minor ailments can develop into sepsis in a matter of mere hours. According to Martin Doerfler, MD, senior vice president of clinical strategy and development at Northwell Health’s Center for Learning and Innovation in New York, at least 50 percent of people who go into septic shock do not survive.

The Importance of Spreading Awareness

Even though it kills between 150,000 and 300,000 people in the U.S. every year, only about one-third of Americans have ever heard of sepsis. Spreading awareness is crucial because it can develop and become life-threatening in such a short period of time.

In fact, Summerour had no idea what it was that nearly ended his life until he got home from the hospital. “The doctors called it an infection. They said my immune system had become compromised, but they didn’t really put a name to it,” he recalls.

One of the biggest challenges to diagnosis and treatment is the ambiguous nature of the condition. “Sepsis is a very nondescript problem, and it may not jump into a physician’s mind initially,” Dr. Doerfler admits. Some of the more common initial symptoms of sepsis include fever, elevated heart rate and rapid breathing.

Early diagnosis and treatment are paramount, but the preliminary signs of sepsis are also common in many other medical conditions. Therefore, medical professionals can have a difficult time making a definitive diagnosis before a patient begins experiencing severe symptoms, such as confusion, difficulty breathing and a serious drop in blood pressure.

Seniors Are at Greater Risk of Sepsis

Seniors are more vulnerable to the damaging effects of sepsis due to reduced immune function that occurs with age. Older individuals are also more likely to have chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, cancer, and liver or kidney disease, that can further affect immune responses. For example, diabetics are more susceptible because their condition causes them to develop sores and wounds that heal slowly and are prone to infection.

Furthermore, seniors make more frequent visits to health care settings, where the risk of developing an infection is increased. “The more you encounter the health care system, the more exposure you have to infectious viruses and bacteria,” Dr. Doerfler points out. Any surgery, no matter how minor, increases a person’s risk for becoming septic, as does the insertion of medical devices like catheters, feeding tubes and IVs.

Even if an elder survives a systematic attack, they are likely to live with lasting consequences. Summerour’s brush with sepsis left him with stage 3 kidney failure. Even though he says his experience caused a lot of changes in his life, he knows that many people do not fare as well. It is this knowledge that convinced him to become a speaker and advocate for the Sepsis Alliance, a nationwide charity dedicated to raising awareness of the disease.

Organ failure and amputation are some of the more common effects of sepsis, but older adults may also suffer serious cognitive issues afterwards. A University of Michigan study shows that 60 percent of seniors who were hospitalized for severe sepsis experienced significant declines in physical and/or mental ability even after they recovered from their underlying infections. Study authors estimate that this finding translates into 20,000 new dementia cases in elderly Americans every year.

How to Protect Loved Ones from Sepsis

There are two key ways to protect your loved ones and yourself from sepsis. The first is using consistent preventative measures to avoid contracting and spreading illnesses and infections. This includes receiving all recommended vaccines, including a flu shot each year, adhering to excellent hand-washing and hygiene practices and leading a healthy lifestyle for a strong immune system.

The second component of protection consists of education and advocacy. If you or a loved one falls ill, it is crucial to know what signs of sepsis to look for and not be afraid to speak up and seek immediate medical help. Every hour that a person with sepsis goes without treatment, their risk of death increases by eight percent.

Dr. Doerfler says the symptoms of sepsis can be ambiguous, but if your loved one has signs of an infection and begins acting abnormally confused or tired, the safest bet is to go to the hospital. He stresses that a change in mental state is a clear indicator that a person needs immediate medical attention, whether it is due to sepsis or another medical issue. A confused senior may be more resistant to going to the hospital, but if sepsis is suspected, their objections should be overruled.

The Sepsis Alliance offers the following acronym to help the public easily remember the telltale symptoms of sepsis:

  • Shivering due to a fever over 101° F or a body temperature below 98.6° F
  • Extreme pain or general discomfort
  • Pale or discolored skin
  • Sleepiness, confusion or changes in consciousness
  • I feel like I might die” and other similar remarks from a patient
  • Shortness of breath

If you notice a combination of any of these symptoms in a loved one, call 911 or seek immediate medical treatment at the nearest emergency room. Be sure to tell the triage nurse and other medical professionals that you suspect sepsis. Nurses and doctors aren’t likely to arrive at this conclusion initially, which is why both Dr. Doerfler and Summerour say it’s a good idea for caregivers to give hospital staff a nudge in that direction.

“You need to advocate and speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves,” says Summerour. “Don’t be afraid to be a little bit pushy.”