Sepsis is a potentially life-threatening condition caused by a faulty immune system response to invading germs. Almost any infection can cause sepsis, and fast treatment is necessary to stop it from progressing.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1.7 million people a year in the United States develop sepsis.
To help protect yourself, learn what sepsis is, how you catch it, and its causes, symptoms, stages and treatments. Find out how fast sepsis can progress, and what to expect after you’ve recovered.
Sepsis is when your body’s immune system fights an invading infection but also your normal, healthy cells. It can spiral quickly to affect organs like the heart and lungs and cause widespread inflammation, according to Northwell Health’s Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research.
“With sepsis, the fight between the infection and the body’s immune response makes the body like a battleground,” Dr. Derek Angus of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine told the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
When an infection begins to spread beyond localized cells to your entire body, this can trigger an out-of-control immune response. While the exact reasons a person’s body responds this way are still being studied, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences says that it is owed to the unchecked release of certain immune regulators.
Sepsis is not contagious, but you can catch infections from other people that may develop into sepsis.
According to a research article published in Microbial Insights, sepsis infections have three major causes:
Bacterial infections: Most cases develop from bacterial infections, especially infections of the lungs. Pneumonia accounts for close to 40% of bacterial sepsis.
Viral sepsis: When a virus such as COVID-19 causes sepsis, it’s known as viral sepsis. These infections are often acquired outside the hospital.
Fungal sepsis: Any fungal infection, such as a yeast infection, can also lead to sepsis. Most fungal sepsis is acquired in hospital settings. Of the three main causes of the condition, fungal sepsis has the highest average death rate.
The majority of sepsis cases begin before a person is hospitalized, the CDC notes. This is called community-acquired infection. Health care- or hospital-acquired infections begin after hospitalization, according to the Sepsis Alliance.
While community-acquired sepsis is more common, according to Microbial Insights, it’s often less severe. The average death rate for community-acquired sepsis is around 15%, compared to 45% for hospital-acquired sepsis.
Knowing the signs of sepsis can help you get treatment quickly. The CDC and UK National Health Service say common symptoms of sepsis include:
Sweaty, clammy skin
Brown or black skin
Gray or blue tongue, lips or skin
Sepsis rash, which doesn’t fade away even when you roll a glass over it
Fast heart rate
A lot of pain
Infants and younger children with sepsis may also exhibit:
A weaker-than-normal, high-pitched cry
Difficulty waking up
A disinterest in feeding or engaging in their normal activities
The Sepsis Alliance lists the three stages of sepsis as:
Sepsis: Fluctuating body temperature, confusion, extreme pain and signs of infection
Severe sepsis: Organ dysfunction, such as difficulty breathing
Septic shock: Dangerously low blood pressure levels
Sepsis is a condition marked by an overreactive immune system response to infection. Septic shock is the last, most severe stage of sepsis.
Medication to raise your blood pressure
Corticosteroids to reduce inflammation
The Feinstein Institutes notes that sepsis can cause organ failure and death within 12 hours of first symptoms. During septic shock, each hour without treatment reduces survival odds by about 8%, according to the Sepsis Alliance.
Post-sepsis survival rates vary significantly, although many studies peg the five-year life expectancy rate at 50%, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
After sepsis, the CDC says you may experience the following mental and physical health symptoms:
Body aches and pains
Out of breath
Disinterest in activities you once enjoyed
Frustration at your limitations
About half of people with sepsis will also develop a condition known as post-sepsis syndrome. It is marked by long-term physical and mental health issues.
Because living with sepsis can be a challenge, the Sepsis Alliance recommends physical, emotional and psychological therapy to help guide your recovery.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Sepsis
Northwell Health’s Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research: Sepsis: The biggest threat you’ve never heard of
National Institutes of Health: Surviving Sepsis: Taming a Deadly Immune Response
National Institute of General Medical Sciences: Sepsis
UK National Health Service: Symptoms: Sepsis
Sepsis Alliance: Healthcare-Acquired Infections (HAIs)
Sepsis Alliance: Sepsis Basics: Treatment
Sepsis Alliance: Sepsis Basics: Symptoms
Sepsis Alliance: Sepsis Basics: What is Sepsis?
Sepsis Alliance: Sepsis Basics: Septic Shock
Sepsis Alliance: Sepsis Basics: Post-sepsis Syndrome
Cleveland Clinic: Sepsis
Understanding how sepsis develops can help you prevent it or respond quickly if it occurs.