Understanding Sepsis: One of the Most Deadly Medical Conditions


Nearly every day, you’re reminded about the dangers of opioids. You’re reminded of the dangers and prevalence of breast cancer and prostate cancer, and urged to take preventive action. Rarely, however, do you hear about a condition that takes more than double the lives of those three public health threats combined: sepsis. During Sepsis Awareness Month, September 2019, please take time to learn about this devastating condition and the measures you can take to prevent and treat it.

Each year, 270,000 lives are lost to sepsis (also referred to as “septic shock”). It has one of the highest mortality rates of any medical condition — higher even than heart attack or stroke. Knowing what to look for, how to help prevent it and what to do if it strikes begins with understanding what sepsis is.

What Is Sepsis?

It is, quite simply, a deadly serious medical emergency.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sepsis is the body’s extreme response to an infection, such as pneumonia, that gets into the blood stream. The condition is often called a “whole body complication” because it leads to multiple organ failure, shock and abnormal blood clotting, and can lead to respiratory failure known as ARDS — acute respiratory distress syndrome. One third of those who develop severe sepsis with acute respiratory distress will die.

Who’s At Risk?

The short answer is “everyone,” but certain people are at higher risk than the general population:

  • Adults 65 and over
  • Those with chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, lung disease, cancer or kidney disease
  • Pregnant women
  • People with weakened immune systems
  • Children under the age of one
  • Individuals with cirrhosis

Sepsis most often occurs in people who are or have recently been hospitalized — especially those who have been in the intensive care unit. Any invasive device, such as an IV catheter or breathing tube, or wounds such as burns also lead to a higher risk of developing sepsis.

Know the Symptoms

If you or a loved one has an infection (such as pneumonia), sepsis can strike with little warning and its progression can be rapid. That’s why it’s vital to know the signs. One simple acronym, created by the Sepsis Alliance, not only makes that easy, but reminds you that getting immediate medical assistance is of the essence:

T — TEMPERATURE that’s abnormal

I — Signs of an INFECTION



Other symptoms can include:

  • High heart rate
  • Shortness of breath — 22 breaths per minute or higher
  • Extreme pain or discomfort
  • Shivering
  • Clammy or sweaty skin
  • A first number in a blood pressure reading of 100 or less

Take Preventive Measures

While there is no way to guarantee that sepsis won’t strike, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk:

  • Vaccinate — Build up your immunity to viruses like shingles and chicken pox.
  • Practice good wound care — Any break in the skin can allow harmful bacteria to enter and cause an infection. Clean open wounds ASAP and often, change bandages frequently and keep an eye out for redness, warm skin around the wound, increased pain or discharge. If any of these occur, call your doctor immediately.
  • Take antibiotics as directed — If you’ve been prescribed antibiotics, take them on time and finish the full course even if you’re feeling better. The last thing you want is an infection roaring back to life.
  • Wash your hands often — This is personal hygiene 101, but the more we learn, the more we realize how important it is in preventing diseases that can increase your risk of sepsis. Wash your hands:
    • Before eating or handling food
    • After using the bathroom
    • After coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose
    • After touching animals
    • After trips to public places

Don’t Wait

Now that you know how dangerous sepsis is, you know that there’s no time to waste. If you’re in the Pittsburgh South Hills, St. Clair Hospital is ready and right nearby. Our Intensive Care Unit utilizes state-of-the-art technology, the most advanced equipment and the most effective evidence-based clinical practices to launch the counter-attack against this deadly condition. If you or someone you love is suffering from an infection like pneumonia, and you recognize any of the symptoms of sepsis, don’t hesitate for an instant. Our dedicated ICU staff combines extensive experience in treating sepsis with a deep commitment to the wellbeing of our community.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/sepsis/what-is-sepsis.html

Mayo Clinic: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sepsis/symptoms-causes/syc-20351214