Sepsis symptom: low blood pressure
Low blood pressure is “likely the most serious manifestation” of the infection, Dr. Dellinger says, and can indicate septic shock, the most critical stage. Low blood pressure happens during sepsis as blood vessels start to lose fluid and veins and arteries relax, so blood is not moving through the body as it should. “In its most severe form, the low blood pressure does not respond to fluid replacement, and the patient requires medicine delivered into the vein to raise blood pressure,” Dr. Dellinger says. Medical guidelines for sepsis instruct doctors to be on the lookout for a decrease in systolic blood pressure (the top number) to less than 100.
Sepsis symptom: fast heart rate
If you have a sepsis infection, your heart tries to move blood more efficiently so it can fight the illness. “A common response to being sick is for the body to increase the amount of blood being pumped from their heart,” Dr. Coopersmith explains. “The two ways the body has to do this are to increase heart rate and to pump the heart more strongly. This increased blood gives the body a greater chance to fight the infection.” A heart rate of 90 beats a minute or greater may be one of the signs of sepsis, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Sepsis symptom: shortness of breath
Another hallmark of sepsis that the new guidelines say to watch for is a breathing rate greater than 22 breaths per minute. Sepsis can cause fast breathing for two reasons: “One is that the infection is in the lungs, which causes decreased oxygen,” says Dr. Coopersmith, who was on the task force that developed the guidelines. Pneumonia, which he says is the most common cause of sepsis, is one such infection. But, “even if the infection is not in the lungs, as the infection progresses, the body’s need for oxygen increases and the need to release carbon dioxide increases. The body responds to this by breathing faster and feeling short of breath.” Note that shortness of breath is also one of the silent signs of a heart attack.
Sepsis symptom: pale, mottled, or clammy skin
As your body diverts its energy and resources to the brain and heart, it can start to neglect what it considers less critical organs, like the skin. “When a patient gets septic, the body moves blood flow to the most vital organs and away from parts that are less important to staying alive,” Dr. Coopersmith says. “So it can result in less blood flow to the skin and cause it to be pale.” Orlaith Staunton notes that her son Rory had oddly mottled skin, which was also dismissed by doctors until it was too late. “They were not looking for sepsis and therefore they failed to detect and diagnose it,” she says. “If Rory’s doctors had thought to ask if sepsis could be the reason for his symptoms, they would have seen it immediately.”