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What is Septic Shock?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Septic shock is a serious medical condition which is caused by decreased bloodflow in the body, which leads to multiple organ failure as the body is slowly starved of the important components in blood. The mortality rate for this condition is generally around 50%, although some hospitals have a much better mortality rate. This condition most commonly occurs in the young, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems.

It all starts with an infection, which can begin anywhere. As the immune system moves to treat the infection, something goes wrong, and the infection is allowed to spread, ultimately entering the bloodstream. The immune system goes into overdrive attempting to fight the infection, secreting substances which dilate blood vessels along the way. As the blood vessels expand, blood pressure drops, and the bloodflow to the body is drastically reduced. Meanwhile, toxins from the infection flood the body, causing further problems, and tissue starved of oxygen starts to release lactic acid, causing the blood to become highly acidic.

As the infection spreads, the organs in the body begin to fail, thanks to their decreased blood supply and the rising acid level in the blood. When bloodflow fails to reach crucial organs like the brain and heart, the patient can fall into a coma and eventually die.

Treatment for septic shock focuses on supporting the failing organs or doing their work for them, if necessary, while infusing the body with fluids to raise blood pressure and using antibiotics and other drugs to kill off the infection. Depending on which organs have failed, a patient may be put on dialysis or attached to a ventilator to stay alive. Septic shock can be caused by a wide variety of infections, including infections with fungi, and if untreated, the condition will result in death.

The symptoms of septic shock often start out very subtle. The patient may experience some confusion and chills, paired with rapid respiration, and the area around the site of a recent infection or surgery may be especially red. As the condition progresses, the patient will often enter an altered level of consciousness as his or her body attempts to fight the infection, and the symptoms associated with organ failure will start to emerge. At this point, prompt action is necessary to save the patient's life.

After any sort of surgery, patients usually take antibiotics and are monitored closely for any signs of infection which could turn into septic shock. However, the root infection can be caused by anything, even something innocuous like a cut on a finger, so people with compromised immune systems who are at increased risk for septic shock tend to be very careful to avoid any type of infection.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon953230 — On May 24, 2014

I just lost a very dear friend today due to septic shock. He was also not diagnosed quickly enough and by the time they realized what it was all his organs had failed him. Then he went into a coma.

Due to all the infection and excess waste that couldn't be discarded properly through bowel movements and urination, he started to swell. It took just a few days longer and he was so swollen with all that waste and infection that his chest and stomach *literally* burst open because they couldn't hold anything more and within 10 minutes he was dead. I was in the room, as was his family, when it happened. I will never be able to forget the horror that I've seen today. I still smell the stench of the infection. That was the worst experience of my life.

I am a psychiatrist so I've seen some shocking things during my schooling but never like that! But I have to say this: the doctors who were treating him were not quick enough in their diagnosis and treatment options and so I know the pain and anger that is felt due to their misdiagnosis but please remember that their human too.

I can promise you that about 95 percent of doctors feel pain and remorse and guilt when they lose a patient, no matter what the circumstances of their deaths are. They make mistakes just like everyone else and as far as emotionally, being a doctor is one of the hardest jobs there is. I am truly sorry for everyone's experiences with this illness but sometimes we don't have all the answers and I promise you that we wish we did. --Dr. Catherine T.

By anon345588 — On Aug 20, 2013

I have a loved one who has been hospitalized and has been in critical condition for the last three days. Septic was in the diagnosis.

She was in stable condition today and now they are talking about sending her home tomorrow. Does that sound right at all? And is it legal for them to release her after administering health care thus far if their decision might have been based on lack of insurance? Please, if anyone could possibly inform me on the legalities, it would be so appreciated.

By anon338008 — On Jun 10, 2013

What I don't understand is our dear relative had a fungal skin infection that she got at a hospital right after a minor surgery. She had this skin infection for about five months before it became septic. She was never treated for it. They would just clean it, bandage it and send her on her way. Then after about five months with no treatment, it went septic. She was hospitalized and was treated for only two days and in that time her vitals were back to normal. The treatment was then completely stopped and the doctors gave her antibiotics instead. This was really quite unbelievable. What could have possessed them to do that?

The staff knew what she had, even though it was different staff, because everything was in her records, yet they gave her nothing but antibiotics to treat a fungal infection. They continued the antibiotics, knowing that she had this fungal infection that had turned septic and they knew that she only had two days of treatment for it.

They did not care so she slipped into septic shock again as they continued treating with antibiotics.

Needless to say, they killed her with antibiotics because we know that antibiotics are deadly to fungal infections -- especially septic ones. I have since found out that people must get help when the hospital staff is doing them wrong. The ombudsman needs to be called in.

By anon323218 — On Mar 04, 2013

I was admitted to A&E in December with an abdominal infection which progressed to septic shock.

I'm very, very grateful to the staff in A&E who worked quickly and saved my life.

I am trying to find information about rehabilitation after septic shock, but can find very little. Three months on, I'm still having difficulty walking and with abdominal pain.

By anon312688 — On Jan 08, 2013

I had septic shock after having an IUD fitted after the birth of my second child nine weeks before. It was touch and go at one point, but because I was fit and healthy, I survived.

My father is in ICU at the moment with septic shock due to a blocked bile duct causing major infection. He has just been put on a dialysis machine as his kidneys have stopped working and he has a bad heart, due to the sepsis and being nearly 80 years old.

As you can imagine, our lives have been touched by this horrendous illness more than once. Prayers -- lots of prayers.

By anon290051 — On Sep 07, 2012

My friend is in the hospital and I'm just trying to find out what septic shock is. I'm now very worried.

Get well Andrew!

By anon283003 — On Aug 01, 2012

My 16 month old daughter died three hours ago in the hospital. She was admitted five days ago, suffering from gastroenteritis, followed by sepsis then went into septic shock. She was underweight.

By anon279132 — On Jul 11, 2012

My boyfriend died of septic shock because the freaking doctors sent him home also. They gave him antibiotics earlier when he had a bacterial infection. He went back again and they sent him home. He called 911 but by the time they got to the hospital he was already in a coma. He passed on a week later.

By anon278327 — On Jul 05, 2012

My mother currently has septic shock and is in the hospital. In ICU, she was on a ventilator and gained 38 pounds in water weight and kept in a medical coma. Her colon had leaked where it was sewn together after one-third was removed due to cancer. The previous 11 months she had told doctors that she didn't feel well but no doctor listened. She had a lot of stomach pain, then lost 25 pounds and was vomiting blood. (One even gave her a relaxation tape and told her to go home!)

When a doctor finally performed surgery, what they said was it would be fixed in one hour, thinking it was scar tissue. My mom was in the OR for eight hours and doctors found she has stage 4 terminal colon cancer. So after she recovers from the septic shock, and waits six weeks to heal from the two surgeries (second was to clean the infection in her body cavity), she will undergo six months of chemo.

Even though she was in the hospital, it took days for doctors to figure out she had septic shock. I am so sorry for all of you and family members of loved ones who have had septic shock. Doctors who work in hospitals need to study the signs of septic shock!

By anon277296 — On Jun 29, 2012

I had septic shock eight years ago. I had a tiny scratch on my finger which I got at the nursing home I worked in. I was scratched by a resident. I felt poorly for three months and I saw many doctors, but not one gave me antibitics? The infection was strep A virus, and it was in my bloodstream.

On the Friday morning I felt so bad, I called 999, was taken to AE, and they said I needed to drink water and rest and told my husband to bring me back after the weekend if I had not improved. That evening I collapsed in the bathroom at home, so my husband rang 999, I went back to AE and they looked angry to see me back. Within 10 minutes of being there, I was dead and they had to bring me back and straight onto life support, and opened up in the operating room, with 40 staples, three weeks on all the machines you can think of, tubes, wires, needles everywhere, in my groin, arms and neck.

Eventually, I went onto a medical ward, and it took over six weeks in there to get me home for a long battle with rehab. I have had two of infection since it seems that even before the infection hits, my bloodstream and my body go into shock and start shutting down. I also find that if I get, say a bad cold and my lungs are infected, instead of taking five to seven days to see some recovery, it takes me three or four weeks.

I am fine at the mo, but I don't think anyone really can know the sheer trauma of being so ill and coming back from the dead, and then having similar symptoms and the panic and sadness that it may happen again. I find that I am am fearful of illness and where it will lead me, but it's been eight years now since I cheated death, and I am just grateful for every year now that I get with my son.

I could be so angry about the neglect of doctors. In reality, when that hospital sent me home on the Friday, my poor husband would have gotten up on Saturday to find me dead. But life is way too short, so I have let it go, and am just grateful that I survived. --Joanne

By anon271087 — On May 24, 2012

A friend of mine is in the hospital now with septic shock. I wish him well.

By anon262468 — On Apr 19, 2012

I am 28 and when I was only 23 I had two kidney stones. I went to the hospital in so much pain and the ER doctor sent me home with Vicodin, even though my stones were too big and I had an infection as well.

Well, after a few hours, my body could no longer take the pain, so I was right back at the same hospital, only this time my body just gave up on me. I had a septic shock due to my infection that spread, and my immune system could no longer fight it. All my organs stopped. For seven whole minutes, I had almost no oxygen, no heartbeat. I woke up weeks after, and I had tubes everywhere IVs, and was tied to a bed. It was so unnecessary for me to go through all of that.

Somehow I am alive today, but my health is bad. I have developed a seizure disorder, I am always suffering from some infection and a million different things I now have to live with, like depression and panic attacks.

My quality of life is awful. I can no longer drive or do a lot of normal things because of some of the medications I have to take daily. I'm now researching a lot about septic shock and victims of doctors who have no idea what are they doing, send you home or don't work as fast as they should have, and because of that you either live like me or you're dead.

It was the most traumatic situation I have ever been put through. If only that doctor had sent me to surgery the first time I was there, I would be living a normal life today. If anyone had a similar situation,please do contact me. I'm starting a website, a book and a few other things because my anger just gets worse. If only this idiot had paid attention to me and listened to what I was saying.

By anon253969 — On Mar 11, 2012

I went in for hernia surgery. The doctor ruptured my bowels and when I woke up in recovery. I complained of pain, but the doctor said it was normal, gave me pain meds and left for vacation.

Within 18 hours, I was in full septic shock. He perforated my bowels in four places. I had 25 doctors in that time misdiagnose me. I spent four days on the ventilator and two weeks in icu. The end result is I am disabled and have permanent nerve damage from my knees down in both legs.

By anon241249 — On Jan 18, 2012

My daughter died of septic shock. She was in the hospital being treated for a bladder infection. She did not have a spleen. Shouldn't the doctors have been more concerned with this happening? After reading several articles on the subject, I find she showed all but two of the symptoms.

By anon199600 — On Jul 24, 2011

Without ICU and first class facilities, the patient succumbs within four days, on average. Mortality is very high especially in colon rupture.

By anon184865 — On Jun 09, 2011

I have hidradenitis suppurativa which causes abscesses. Otherwise I am in good health. Am i more in danger of septic shock because of my condition?

By anon153413 — On Feb 17, 2011

If they would have told me that my husband had septic shock, then i would have done everything possible to treat him but that doctor did not tell me anything. now my kids do not have a dad.

By anon136664 — On Dec 23, 2010

can untreated bed sores also cause septic shock.

By anon84031 — On May 13, 2010

My husband was at the hospital being treated for a blocked colon. Since he didn't have some of the danger symptoms, the doctor put off his surgery. His colon ruptured, he went into septic shock and died.

I am looking for and answer to this question:

How long after your colon has ruptured do you have to have surgery? Every minute is critical when you have crap spilling into your body, so how long?

By anon75430 — On Apr 06, 2010

I believe that the subject of septic shock was the concern of all medical specialities except the anaesthesiology but with advances in the practice of intensive care medicine and ICUs which is mostly rolled and covered by anaesthesiologists, the subject begin to be of great concern of anaesthesiology. I do not know if you are with me in this idea or not. With great thanks. Dr. Fadhil Z.,

Consultant anaesthesiologist.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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