What is sepsis?

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that occurs when the immune system overreacts to an infection in the body. Sepsis occurs when an infection spreads throughout the whole body and affects vital organs such as the heart, lungs, and kidneys. Sepsis most often starts with a local infection such as pneumonia, a wound infection or urinary tract infection.

How does sepsis start?

When an infection occurs, your immune system becomes activated and works to control the infection. Sometimes, the immune system can overreact or react incorrectly in some way, and instead of only managing the local infection, other body organs are damaged. You can compare it to if a country would be invaded by a foreign power and we choose to detonate an atomic bomb over our own country to eliminate the enemy. Our enemies would indeed disappear, but we would also kill ourselves. Sepsis usually starts with a local infection, for example, pneumonia, urinary tract infection or wound infection. Sepsis can also develop as a result of a post-surgery infection. Around 70 % of all sepsis cases start at home and 30 % are hospital-acquired.

What happens in the body?

When the immune system overreacts to an infection, reactive substances in the blood are produced which makes the blood vessels start to leak, like a garden hose with holes. This results in reduction of blood pressure and the body has difficulties transporting oxygen to vital organs, which in turn, damages these organs such as the heart, brain, lungs, kidneys, and liver. You can then suffer from, what the doctors call organ dysfunction or organ failure. When the bloodstream has difficulties transporting oxygen, the heart pumps heavily, and you can therefore feel that the heart beats very fast. Labored breathing is also a common symptom and is another sign that the body is trying to increase oxygenation. In some cases of sepsis, bacteria from the local infection site have spread to the bloodstream but with currently available methods bacteria can be shown in the blood of only 20 % of all sepsis cases.

You can describe sepsis as an inflammation in the whole body.

Around 90 % of all sepsis cases are assumed to be due to bacteria but it is a well-known fact that certain viruses, such as certain types of influenza (the Spanish Flu, the Bird Flu, the Swine Flu) and even Corona Virus (SARS, MERS, and Covid-19) and certain puumala viruses, can give a sepsis-like manifestation with a so-called systemic inflammation. All pathogens (bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and viruses) can cause sepsis if they just irritate and overwhelm the immune system.

Time is crucial

Time is important with regard to sepsis, every hour without a diagnosis and adequate care can have serious consequences. The earlier you get into the hospital and receive care the greater are your chances for a satisfactory outcome. If you suspect sepsis, don’t hesitate – get medical help. And when you come to the hospital, do not hesitate to ask: Can it be sepsis?

Risk groups

In general, sepsis can affect anyone. People that otherwise are in good health can suffer from a normal flu, urinary tract infection, or wound infection. But some groups have an increased risk of getting sepsis:

  • Old and those with multiple comorbidities
  • People with diabetes or liver disease
  • People who have undergone an organ transplant
  • People with receiving cancer treatment
  • People with underlying immunological diseases
  • People who have undergone surgery
  • Pregnant women or new mothers
  • Infants

Learn to recognize the symptoms.

Read more about sepsis in children here.