Blood poisoning is a serious infection. It occurs when bacteria are in the bloodstream.

Despite its name, the infection has nothing to do with poison. Although not a medical term, “blood poisoning” is used to describe bacteremia, septicemia, or sepsis.

Sepsis is a serious condition in which the body responds improperly to an infection. The infection-fighting processes turn on the body, causing the organs to work poorly.

Sepsis may progress to septic shock. This is a dramatic drop in blood pressure that can damage the lungs, kidneys, liver and other organs. When the damage is severe, it can lead to death.

Early treatment of sepsis improves chances for survival.

What causes blood poisoning?

Blood poisoning occurs when bacteria causing infection in another part of your body enter your bloodstream. The presence of bacteria in the blood is referred to as bacteremia or septicemia. The terms “septicemia” and “sepsis” are often used interchangeably, though technically they aren’t quite the same. Septicemia, the state of having bacteria in your blood, can lead to sepsis. Sepsis is a severe and often life-threatening state of infection if it’s left untreated. But any type of infection — whether bacterial, fungal, or viral — can cause sepsis. And these infectious agents don’t necessarily need to be in a person’s bloodstream to bring about sepsis.

Such infections most commonly occur in the lungs, abdomen, and urinary tract. Sepsis happens more often in people who are hospitalized, where the risk of infection is already higher.

Because blood poisoning occurs when bacteria enter your bloodstream in conjunction with another infection, you won’t develop sepsis without having an infection first.

Some common causes of infections that can cause sepsis include:

  • abdominal infection
  • an infected insect bite
  • central line infection, such as from a dialysis catheter or chemotherapy catheter
  • dental extractions or infected teeth
  • exposure of a covered wound to bacteria during surgical recovery, or not changing a surgical bandage frequently enough
  • exposure of any open wound to the environment
  • infection by drug-resistant bacteria
  • kidney or urinary tract infection
  • pneumonia
  • skin infection

What are the three stages of sepsis?

Healthcare providers used to organize sepsis into three stages: sepsis, severe sepsis and septic shock. Now, they identify the condition on a more fluid scale. This scale ranges from infection and bacteremia (bacteria in your bloodstream) to sepsis and septic shock, which can lead to dysfunction of multiple organs and even death.

Who does sepsis affect?

Sepsis can affect anyone, but people with any kind of infection, especially bacteremia, are at a particularly high risk.

Other people who are at a high risk include:

  • People older than 65 years old, newborns and infants, and pregnant people.
  • People with medical conditions such as diabetes, obesity, cancer and kidney disease.
  • People with weakened immune systems.
  • People who are in the hospital for other medical reasons.
  • People with severe injuries, such as large burns or wounds.
  • People with catheters, IVs or breathing tubes.

How common is sepsis?

More than 1.7 million people in the United States receive a diagnosis of sepsis each year. There are differences in sepsis rates among different demographic groups. Sepsis is more common among older adults, with incidence increasing with each year after the age of 65 years old.


What are the symptoms of sepsis?

Sepsis can affect many different areas of your body, so there are many possible symptoms.

If an infection such as blood poisoning (septicemia) triggered your condition, you may develop a sepsis rash on your skin. The rash makes your skin appear red and discolored. You may see small, dark-red spots on your skin.

Other common sepsis symptoms include:

  • Urinary issues, such as reduced urination or an urge to urinate.
  • Low energy/weakness.
  • Fast heart rate.
  • Low blood pressure.
  • Fever or hypothermia (very low body temperature).
  • Shaking or chills.
  • Warm or clammy/sweaty skin.
  • Confusion or agitation.
  • Hyperventilation (rapid breathing) or shortness of breath.
  • Extreme pain or discomfort.

What causes sepsis?

Bacterial infections are one of the most common causes of sepsis. Fungal, parasitic and viral infections are also potential sepsis causes. You can get sepsis when an infection triggers a chain reaction throughout your body causing organ dysfunction.

The infection leading to sepsis can start in many different parts of the body. Common sites and types of infections that can lead to sepsis include:

Respiratory system

  • Infections involving your lungs, such as pneumonia.

Urinary tract system

Gastrointestinal system

  • Infection of your appendix (appendicitis).
  • Bowel problems.
  • Infection in your abdominal cavity (peritonitis).
  • Gallbladder or liver infections.

Central nervous system

  • Infections of your brain or spinal cord.


  • Bacteria can enter your skin through wounds, inflammation or openings made with catheters and IVs.
  • Conditions such as cellulitis (inflammation of your skin’s connective tissue).

Is sepsis contagious?

Sepsis itself isn’t contagious — you can’t spread it to other people. But you can spread the infections that can cause sepsis.

How do you treat sepsis?

Sepsis treatment needs to begin immediately. The most important concern in sepsis protocol is a quick diagnosis and prompt treatment.

If your provider diagnoses you with sepsis, they’ll usually place you in the intensive care unit (ICU) of the hospital for special treatment. You may receive the following treatment for sepsis:

  • Antibiotics: You’ll receive antibiotics if you have a bacterial infection.
  • IV (intravenous) fluids: You’ll need fluids to maintain blood flow to your organs and prevent your blood pressure from dropping too low.
  • Vasopressor medications: Vasopressors tighten blood vessels. In some cases, you may need them to reach an adequate blood pressure.
  • Appropriate supportive care: If organ failures occur, you’ll need other sepsis treatments such as dialysis for kidney failure or mechanical ventilation for respiratory failure.
  • Surgery: You may need surgery to remove damaged tissue.

How can I help prevent sepsis?

Steps you can take to prevent sepsis include:

  • Practicing good hygiene, including handwashing.
  • Keeping cuts and other wounds clean, and keeping them covered until healed.
  • Keeping up to date on recommended vaccines.
  • Getting routine medical care for chronic conditions.
  • Getting medical attention immediately if you suspect an infection.

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