Sepsis is a systemic inflammatory response to a severe infection. The inflammatory response triggers a rapid series of events, such as leaking blood vessels and impaired blood flow.
Severe sepsis is associated with a drop in blood pressure. Low blood pressure reduces the amount of oxygen and nutrients going to the body's organs. This drop causes damage the body's major organs.
Septic shock occurs when adequate blood pressure cannot be restored despite treatment with IV fluids. Septic shock may lead to multiple organ failure and death.
Septic shock is caused by an infection that overwhelms the body. Sepsis can be triggered by many different kinds of infections including:
- Bacterial—most common
- Fungal infections
Septic shock is more common in infants and in people over 50 years old. Other factors that may increase your chance of septic shock include:
- Weakened immune system
- Absence of your spleen
- Low white blood cell counts
- Chronic diseases
- Previous surgery
Septic shock may cause:
- Fever, which may be followed by a drop in body temperature to below normal
- Warm, flushed skin
- Rapid, pounding heartbeat
- Rapid breathing or trouble breathing
- Reduced alertness
- Irregular blood pressure
- Reduced urination
- Severe bleeding—disseminated intravascular coagulation
Complications from septic shock may cause symptoms of:
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Tests may include the following:
- Blood tests to assess white blood cell counts and inflammatory markers that might indicate how serious the infection is, and oxygen levels and kidney function to assess damage to specific organs.
- Cultures to check for infectious organisms
- Electrocardiogram (EKG) to check for heart rhythm irregularities
- Imaging tests may be used to look for specific sources of infection, such as pneumonia
Sepsis and septic shock require immediate care. Treatment includes the following:
Supportive Measures for Shock
If you have septic shock, you will be admitted to the intensive care unit. There you will be given:
- IV fluids
- Medications to increase blood pressure and blood flow to your organs
- Extra oxygen
- Corticosteroids may be needed to reduce the inflammatory response, especially if fluids aren't working
If your lungs fail, you may be put on a mechanical ventilator to help you breathe. Other therapies or supportive measures may be used.
Once the cause of the infection has been tested for, you will be given high doses of one or more antibiotics or antifungal medications. Once a specific infection is identified, the may be changed.
Most cases of septic shock cannot be prevented. Treating bacterial and other infections promptly may help.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Society of Critical Care Medicine
Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians
Behrman RE, et al. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 18th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders; 2007.
Dellinger RP, Levy MM, Rhodes A, et al. Surviving sepsis campaign: international guidelines for management of severe sepsis and septic shock: 2012. Crit Care Med. 2013;41(2):580-637.
Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Textbook of Internal Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders; 2008.
Marx JA, et al. Rosen's Emergency Medicine.7th ed. St. Louis, MO: Mosby, Inc.; 2009.
Sepsis and septic shock. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/critical_care_medicine/sepsis_and_septic_shock/sepsis_and_septic_shock.html. Updated July 2013. Accessed November 6, 2015.
Sepsis fact sheet. National Institute of General Medical Sciences website. Available at: http://www.nigms.nih.gov/Education/Pages/factsheet_sepsis.aspx. Updated August 2014. Accessed November 6, 2015.
Sepsis in adults. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115805/Sepsis-in-adults. Updated June 8, 2016. Accessed September 27, 2016.
Sepsis treatment in adults. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T316889/Sepsis-treatment-in-adults. Updated July 29, 2016. Accessed September 27, 2016.
Last reviewed November 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.