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What is Blood Poisoning?

By Deneatra Harmon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Blood poisoning, also known as sepsis, is a serious and sometimes life-threatening medical condition that happens when the body's immune system reacts to infection. Such reactions can cause damage to the body tissues and vital organs. Signs that indicate blood poisoning usually include a high fever, a rapid heartbeat, and difficulty breathing. Children and the elderly are among the highest risk of developing sepsis. Treatment for blood poisoning ranges from antibiotics to hospitalization for severe cases.

While commonly known as blood poisoning, doctors also identify the medical condition as systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS). The syndrome may also be referred to as meningococcemia, septic shock, or multiple organ dysfunction syndrome. Blood poisoning weakens the immune system and causes inflammation and blood clotting throughout the body.

Infections from illnesses, injuries, or medical devices are among the main causes of blood poisoning. Bacterial infections are the most common, but a person may also develop a viral, parasitic, or fungal infection that leads to blood poisoning. The infection may spread to other parts of the body. For instance, the skin provides a source of potential infection because bacteria can enter through a wound. Infections of the gallbladder or inflammation of the appendix can also cause septic shock.

Other sources that cause sepsis include a brain infection, urinary tract infection, or lung infection such as pneumonia. Inflammation from sepsis results in pain, swelling, redness, and heat at the infection site. Organ failure may also result from widespread septic shock. Blood clotting is another complication that causes sepsis. In this case, the body receives limited blood flow to the limbs and organs, which then leads to liver or kidney failure or tissue damage known as gangrene.

Symptoms of blood poisoning vary because the infection may come from anywhere on the body. A person may experience a high fever above 101° Fahrenheit (around 38.5° Celsius) or a low body temperature below 95° Fahrenheit (approximately 35° Celsius). A high heart rate of more than 90 beats per minute, hyperventilation, and confusion can also indicate septic shock. A medical professional should also evaluate chills, shaking, or warmer-than-usual skin or a skin rash to determine the presence of systemic inflammatory response syndrome.

A doctor may diagnosis an illness as sepsis if tests indicate liver, kidney, or other organ dysfunction, low blood platelet count, or too much acid in the blood. An unusually high or low white blood cell count, and a blood test that shows bacteria, may also mean a diagnosis of sepsis. Samples of urine, wound secretions, and cerebrospinal fluid may also be tested for sepsis. To detect an infection and its source, the doctor also uses X-rays, ultrasounds, CT scans, and MRIs.

Anyone can become ill with septic shock, but specific risk factors apply. Children and the elderly are among the highest risk groups, followed by those with weakened immune systems caused by other conditions. Serious injuries like bullet wounds, problems such as bacterial infection of the blood, and illnesses including pneumonia also increase sepsis risk.

If the doctor confirms sepsis, prompt treatment means a better chance of survival. Broad-spectrum antibiotics, which are delivered intravenously, treat different types of bacteria. Patients may also receive vasopressors to regulate blood pressure levels. Supplementary medications such as painkillers, corticosteroids, or insulin to control blood sugar levels,may also be administered.

More serious cases of sepsis require supportive therapies. For example, a patient in a hospital's intensive care unit may receive oxygen and intravenous fluids. A respirator may also be supplied if the patient suffers from respiratory failure. Dialysis may also be necessary if the sepsis causes kidney failure. In addition, a doctor may perform surgery to remove abscesses, intravenous lines, and medical devices like a catheter that may have caused septic shock.

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Discussion Comments
By steph259 — On Dec 25, 2011

I don't have fever but I breathe rapidly and I feel very weak. The other day, I noticed that my fingernails turned purple/black. Can you tell me what is happening to me?

I gave birth to a baby girl five weeks ago. After six days she was diagnosed with sepsis and was confined for 16 days with antibiotics and IV fluids. Now she's doing well and she's healthy.

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