Blood poisoning is an illness due to an infection or its toxin spreading through the bloodstream. The presence of bacteria in the blood is called bacteremia.
Short bursts of low levels of bacteria in the blood usually do not cause problems. However, if bacteria levels do not decrease, then sepsis may occur.
Sepsis occurs when large numbers of infectious agents exist in the blood. Infections with viruses, fungi, and parasites may lead to sepsis as well. Causes include:
- An existing infection
- Contagious diseases
- A dirty needle used by an IV drug user
|Toxins Can Spread Through the Bloodstream|
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Factors that increase your chance of getting sepsis include:
- Recent illness or hospital care, especially surgery
- Frail health due to increased age
- Poorly working immune system due to:
- Medical treatment with an invasive device
- IV drug abuse
- Crowded living conditions as in the case of some types of pneumonia and meningitis
The first symptoms depend on the site of the infection.
As the condition progresses to sepsis, symptoms may include:
- Fever and chills
- Low temperature
- Pale skin color
- Changes in mental status
- Rapid breathing/distress
- Increased heart rate/weak pulse
- Decreased urine
- Problems with bleeding or clotting
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. If sepsis is suspected, the doctor will try to find the source of the infection.
Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with:
- Blood cultures and tests
- Urine cultures and tests
- Sputum cultures
- Stool cultures
Images may be taken of your bodily structures. This can be done with:
This condition will need to be treated aggressively. Treatment is aimed at the cause of the initial infection.
Early treatment improves the chance of survival. Life-saving steps may be needed to assist breathing and heart function. People with sepsis usually need to be observed in an intensive care unit.
IV antibiotics will be used to fight the initial infection and to clear it from your blood. You may be given oral antibiotics when you leave the hospital.
Surgery is sometimes needed to remove or drain the initial infection.
You will likely receive other medications, IV fluids, and oxygen. If your blood pressure remains too low, you may need vasopressors—medications to help maintain your normal blood pressure. Blood transfusions and a respirator to help you breathe may be necessary in some cases.
Further treatment depends on how your body is responding. For example, you may need kidney dialysis if kidney failure occurs.
It is not always possible to prevent blood poisoning. Avoiding IV drug use decreases your chance of sepsis. Health care professionals must also take steps to stop the spread of these infections. Getting prompt medical care for infections can reduce your risk of sepsis.
- David L. Horn, MD, FACP
- Reviewed: 05/2014
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