Sepsis: The hidden danger of infection |

Sepsis: The hidden danger of infection

Brandy Kolmer
Special to The Union


September is Sepsis Awareness Month. To help prevent sepsis, the CDC urges everyone to:

— Talk to your doctor about steps to prevent infections, including managing chronic conditions and getting recommended vaccinations.

— Practice good hygiene, including handwashing and keeping cuts clean and covered until healed.

— Know the symptoms of sepsis and react quickly, especially if an infection is not getting better or is getting worse.

Infections come in nearly endless variety, and identifying and treating them early can be the essential step to staving off the much more serious, even life-threatening, condition of sepsis.

This month the Centers for Disease Control and other health organizations, including Dignity Health Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital, are raising awareness about sepsis, which affects more than 1.5 million people in the U.S. annually, and accounts for 250,000 deaths each year.

In short, sepsis is the body’s extreme and toxic response to an infection.

The condition occurs when the bodily chemicals used to fight an infection trigger an extensive inflammation response throughout the body. This inflammation can quickly become life-threatening by damaging organs and other bodily systems.

Whether the infection begins from a wound, a virus, or bacteria, the onset of sepsis requires fast action. According to the national organization, Sepsis Alliance, for every hour sepsis treatment is delayed, the risk of death increases as much as eight percent.

The organization shares the symptoms to watch for in the acronym TIME:

— Temperature: Higher or lower than normal

— Infection: May have signs and symptoms of an infection

— Mental decline: Confused, sleepy, difficult to rouse

— Extremely ill: “I feel like I might die,” severe pain or discomfort

Alex Hendriksen, RN, a Quality Analyst at SNMH, is on the front line of the battle against sepsis.

“Our clinical staff are trained to identify trends in lab work, vital signs, and physical assessments to identify sepsis early,” Hendriksen explains. “From our patients who just had elective knee replacements to new moms right after delivery, we screen every single patient twice daily and more as needed. When certain criteria are met we can intervene immediately.”

Yet the majority of sepsis cases, up to 87 percent according to Sepsis Alliance, begin outside the hospital setting.

“Sepsis has one of the most subtle and challenging presentations,” says Hendriksen. “It can be hard to identify with the naked eye, even for clinical caregivers.”

He says additional symptoms to look for include shortness of breath, high heart rate, fever, shivering or feeling very cold, and clammy or sweaty skin.

Sepsis is typically treated with intravenous antibiotics and hydration. In more severe cases, medications are also administered intravenously to improve blood flow to vital organs.

Anyone can contract an infection and therefore anyone may be at risk for sepsis.

However, the complication is most common in adults 65 and older; people with weakened immune systems; children younger than one year old; and individuals with chronic conditions such as diabetes, lung disease, cancer and kidney disease.

Protecting yourself from an initial illness is the best first step. Wash your hands, seek medical care early when you become ill, take antibiotics as directed, and be sure to work closely with your primary care provider if you have chronic health conditions.

“If an infection seems to be getting worse, it is important to seek further medical care promptly,” says Hendriksen.

The greater message is that anyone, regardless of their baseline health status, can develop sepsis as the result of the progression of an existing infection. When in doubt, take action quickly to ensure that you or your loved ones get care.

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