Sepsis: What It Is, Causes, Symptoms, Stages, Treatment & Life Expectancy

Sepsis: What It Is, Causes, Symptoms, Stages, Treatment & Life Expectancy
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Medically Reviewed By:
Mark Arredondo, M.D.

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.

What is sepsis?

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).

How do you get sepsis?

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.

Is sepsis contagious?

Sepsis is not contagious, but you can catch infections from other people that may develop into sepsis.

What causes 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.

Hospital-acquired versus community-acquired sepsis

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.

Sepsis symptoms

Knowing the signs of sepsis can help you get treatment quickly. The CDC and UK National Health Service say common symptoms of sepsis include:

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Confusion

  • Fever

  • 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

  • Weak pulse

  • 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

  • Sleeping more

  • A disinterest in feeding or engaging in their normal activities

What are the three stages of sepsis?

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 versus septic shock: What’s the difference?

Sepsis is a condition marked by an overreactive immune system response to infection. Septic shock is the last, most severe stage of sepsis.

Sepsis treatment

Since most sepsis infections are caused by bacteria, antibiotics are a top treatment option. The Sepsis Alliance says your doctor may also treat you with:

  • IV fluids

  • Medication to raise your blood pressure

  • Oxygen

  • Corticosteroids to reduce inflammation

  • Specialized care

How long does it take to die from sepsis?

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.

Life expectancy after sepsis

Post-sepsis survival rates vary significantly, although many studies peg the five-year life expectancy rate at 50%, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Living with sepsis

After sepsis, the CDC says you may experience the following mental and physical health symptoms:

  • Body aches and pains

  • Brittle nails

  • Weakness

  • Out of breath

  • Hair loss

  • Dry skin

  • Fatigue

  • Confusion

  • Disinterest in activities you once enjoyed

  • Depression

  • Flashbacks

  • 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

Microbial Insights: Characterization of Pathogenic Sepsis Etiologies and Patient Profiles: A Novel Approach to Triage and Treatment

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

What This Means For You

Understanding how sepsis develops can help you prevent it or respond quickly if it occurs.

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