Decoding the Mysterious Sepsis

What happens when your immune system damages its own tissues and organs? Learn the facts behind sepsis.

It affects more than 30 million people worldwide each year and claims more lives than breast, lung, and prostate cancers combined; yet many adults have never heard of it. It’s called sepsis.

There's lots of information out there, and it's easy to be confused about how exactly sepsis arises. Below, Agim Beshiri, M.D., Abbott senior medical director, shares the facts about sepsis and what you can do if you think you have it.

What is Sepsis?

Sepsis occurs when the body's attempt to fight an infection damages its own tissues and organs. The condition can develop suddenly and lead to shock, multiple organ failure, and death if it's not recognized early and treated quickly. The most common culprits behind sepsis are fungal, bacterial, and viral infections. People with weaker immune systems – for example, elderly adults, preterm infants, or those who recently underwent surgery or had a transplant – tend to be at higher risk of developing the condition.

"When evaluating people who might be septic, doctors generally use a number of physical findings like fever, increased heart rate, and increased breathing rate. They also conduct lab tests that check for signs of infection, such as lactate level," said Dr. Beshiri.

Another test that can be done for sepsis measures a protein called procalcitonin (PCT). When PCT level goes up, it can indicate a bacterial infection that may be linked to sepsis.

A PCT test from Abbott called the ARCHITECT B·R·A·H·M·S PCT test can help doctors identify sepsis, leading to quicker treatment.

"The PCT test helps detect when the body's response is triggered by an external organism like a bacterium, fungus, or a virus," said Dr. Beshiri. "The earlier we can detect this, the better. That's when we actually have a gain in determining the course of action and initiating therapy to improve the outcome."

A PCT test like this one is critical in helping save lives. That's because, while sepsis is treatable, it must first be suspected and detected – and this can be difficult.

For one, sepsis happens quickly.

"In certain people, it can be over the course of days or weeks," said Dr. Beshiri. "In some, it may be within 24 hours. It depends on how impacted their immune response system already is, due to other underlying factors."

In addition, there's no telltale sign of sepsis. Many of the symptoms – like fever, chills, dizziness, shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, and confusion – mimic those of other illnesses, making it easy for doctors to confuse sepsis with other conditions.

"The secret to fighting sepsis and saving lives is identifying it quickly," said Dr. Beshiri. "Educating yourself on the symptoms is the first step in seeking treatment."

What Can You Do If You Think You Have Sepsis?

Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it's important to:

  • Call your doctor or go to the emergency room immediately if you have any signs or symptoms of an infection or sepsis. This is a medical emergency.

  • If you or your loved one suspects sepsis or has an infection that's not getting better or is getting worse, ask your doctor or nurse, "Could this infection be leading to sepsis?"

  • If you're continuing to feel worse or not getting better in the days after surgery, ask your doctor about sepsis. Sepsis is a common complication of people hospitalized for other reasons.

Through greater awareness of sepsis and innovative tests for early detection, it’s possible to help save lives that might have otherwise been lost.

For more information about sepsis, check out these resources: