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What to know about sepsis

Every year at least 1.7 million adults in the U.S. develop sepsis, a potentially deadly condition that is striking more and more Americans as people with chronic diseases live longer, the population ages and resistance to antibiotics grows.

“Sepsis occurs when the body's immune system triggers an extreme response to an ongoing infection,” said Angela Steinbrecher, RN, infection preventionist for Aspirus. “This response—a release of immune chemicals into the blood—creates widespread inflammation in the body, which causes blood clots and leaky blood vessels. Without timely treatment, sepsis can rapidly lead to organ damage, multiple organ failure and, in some cases, death.”

To learn more about sepsis, read these answers to some commonly asked questions:

Q: Who is at risk for sepsis?

A: Sepsis is a result of infection, and anyone can get an infection. But sepsis is more likely to occur in people with chronic conditions like diabetes, lung disease, cancer, kidney disease or AIDS.

Other people at high risk for sepsis include adults 65 or older, people with compromised immune systems, and children under the age of 1.

Q: What are the symptoms?

A: The symptoms of sepsis are similar to many other illnesses, which can make it difficult to diagnose in its early stages. If you have any reason to suspect that you have sepsis and are exhibiting any combination of the following symptoms, seek immediate medical attention:

• Fever or feeling very cold.

• Clammy or sweaty skin.

• Extreme pain or discomfort.

• High heart rate.

• Shortness of breath

• Confusion or disorientation.

Q: How is sepsis treated?

A: People with sepsis are typically treated in a hospital intensive care unit. They're often given antibiotics and fluids. Some patients may also need a breathing tube, kidney dialysis or surgery to remove tissue damaged by the infection.

Q: What else do I need to know about sepsis?

A: It's important to be on the lookout for sepsis. Knowing the symptoms is a good place to start. It's also crucial to:

Prevent infections. Talk to your doctor or nurse about what you can do to reduce your risk of infections, especially if you have a chronic condition that increases your risk for sepsis. Also, be sure to get all recommended vaccines.

Exercise good hygiene. Wash your hands frequently, and keep cuts clean and covered until fully healed.

Don't wait. Sepsis is a medical emergency. Call your doctor or go to the hospital immediately if you have an infection that's not getting better or if you suspect sepsis.