Sepsis, or “blood poisoning,” is deadly—but it’s also tough to diagnose. Learning to recognize the signs is your best protection against this silent killer.
Sepsis symptom: fever
Sepsis strikes more than a million Americans every year, and according to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, 15 to 30 percent die from it. And yet a survey shows that some 45 percent of Americans have never even heard of sepsis, a deadly infection that happens when the whole body mounts an immune response to an infection elsewhere in the body. People with weakened immune systems are most vulnerable, but anyone can develop sepsis from an initial infection such as pneumonia, a urinary tract infection, or even just a cut on the arm or leg. Although sepsis can easily be treated with antibiotics along with supportive care if caught early, sepsis symptoms can be confused with other conditions, so it often goes undiagnosed until it’s too late. That’s why it’s crucial to learn the signs of sepsis, and the first and most important is a high fever. Sepsis occurs when “toxins from the infecting organism get into the bloodstream and produce inflammation,” says noted sepsis expert R. Philip Dellinger, MD, chair and chief of the department of medicine at Cooper University Health Care in Camden, New Jersey. “Fever is the most specific finding of infection-induced systemic inflammation.”
Sepsis symptom: a very low temperature
Alternately, toxins from a sepsis infection can cause the opposite effect. “Very rarely, the body responds to an infection by dropping body temperature, although this is less common,” says Craig Coopersmith, MD, a surgeon at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta and a leading researcher on sepsis. Studies have shown that a low temp can mean a more serious case of sepsis and a worse prognosis. In people who have weakened immune systems, sepsis can sometimes show up without an abnormal temperature.
Sepsis symptom: chills
Ironically, chills often accompany a high temperature—and if this is one of your symptoms, make sure you mention it to the doctor. “Chills are subjective—a patient feels chills but it cannot be observed by a health-care provider,” Dr. Dellinger says. However, fever and chills can easily be mistaken for a different type of infection, such as the flu, so it’s usually only in combination with other symptoms that sepsis can be identified. “The greater the number and magnitude of each finding, the more and more concern there is for sepsis,” Dr. Dellinger says.
Sepsis symptom: pain or discomfort
The pain from fighting off a sepsis infection can be felt all over or localized to specific spots. For 12-year-old Rory Staunton, one of the most obvious sepsis symptoms was pain in his stomach as well as his leg, which was overlooked by doctors. “We made our way to the ER at a major New York medical institution, where the doctors said Rory’s discomfort was caused by a sick stomach and dehydration,” says Orlaith Staunton, Rory’s mother. Sadly, Rory’s sepsis, which he contracted after he cut his arm in gym class, was not caught in time. “The following morning, he continued to complain of pain,” she says. “We brought Rory back to the hospital on Friday evening and this time they admitted him to the ICU. He was gravely ill.” Rory died two days later. His parents established the Rory Staunton Foundation in his memory to promote sepsis education and awareness, for which Staunton was honored by the L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth philanthropic program.