Sepsis is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. In 2009, more than 258,000 documented deaths and 1.7 million hospitalizations were due to sepsis. That was more than heart attacks, strokes and many types of cancer.
However, a 2011 Harris Poll found more than half of Americans had never heard of sepsis.
Sepsis can develop when the body’s natural defense system fights an infection so intensely, the attack damages the body’s healthy organs. Think of it as “friendly fire.”
If the symptoms of sepsis are not detected and treated quickly, organ damage, disability and even death can occur. Treatment is as simple as giving patients’ antibiotics and intravenous fluids as soon as sepsis is identified. The mortality rate goes up 8 percent to 9 percent for every hour that passes without treatment.
Sepsis is more common in the young, elderly and people receiving treatment for cancer (chemotherapy), HIV, wounds and chronic illnesses. However, anyone can get sepsis. It’s an equal-opportunity killer.
Symptoms can include a heart rate greater than 90 beats per minute; a temperature of greater than 100.4 or less than 96.8 orally; low blood pressure; and fast breathing (more than 20 breaths per minute). You may also become confused or very sleepy and develop splotchy, cool skin. This occurs with an infection that goes untreated or an infection which does not improve with prescribed treatment.
Symptoms are sometimes hard to identify. If a person has two or more of these symptoms, it indicates a person has Systemic Inflammatory Response Syndrome. If the person also has a known or suspected infection, the person has sepsis.
If you are taking an antibiotic and your condition does not improve in 24 to 48 hours, you need to seek further treatment, especially if you have some of the above symptoms. Notify your health care provider as soon as possible, and mention you may have sepsis. This will cue them to evaluate for sepsis. In some instances, the cause of the sepsis cannot be identified.
What are we doing about sepsis at Northeast Georgia Medical Center?
We have developed several processes in our institution to help identify and treat sepsis.
The emergency department utilizes a sepsis alert system to notify the nurse and physician to immediately assess patients with identified symptoms of sepsis to provide immediate, life-saving treatment.
Also, more than 1,300 staff members have attended special sepsis workshops to learn the latest about advanced detection and treatment. As a result, the mortality rate for sepsis at NGMC is below the national average.
A staff nurse who attended the sepsis workshop notified us that, thanks to the workshop, she identified the signs of sepsis in her husband. He was taken to the emergency department, diagnosed with sepsis and immediately treated. He survived and continues his road to recovery.
So, remember, watch for the signs of sepsis and act fast if you to get appropriate treatment.
Registered nurse Susan Irick is the sepsis and pneumonia disease manager at Northeast Georgia Medical Center.