What is blood poisoning?
Blood poisoning, also known as septicemia or sepsis, is a serious medical condition caused by an immune response to a severe infection in the body. It occurs when chemicals released by the immune system to fight the infection trigger inflammatory responses throughout the body. This can cause injury to tissues and organs, leading to organ failure.
Blood poisoning is caused by the spread of bacteria, or their toxins, through the bloodstream. It often begins with a localized infection that enters the blood. Common causes include:
- Bacterial infections of the lungs (pneumonia), bladder (cystitis), or abdomen (peritonitis)
- Skin infections like cellulitis
- Infected wounds
- Intravenous line infections
When bacteria or their toxins from a localized infection enter the bloodstream, they can multiply rapidly. The immune system detects the spread of pathogens and releases inflammatory chemicals called cytokines to fight the infection. However, this can cause systemic inflammation that leads to problems like:
- Clotting disorders
- Low blood pressure
- Organ damage
- Multiple organ failure
Sepsis requires urgent medical treatment with antibiotics and fluids to prevent serious complications or death.
What are the symptoms of blood poisoning?
The symptoms of sepsis can begin quite subtly but quickly escalate in severity. Early signs to watch for include:
- Fever above 101°F (38°C)
- Chills and shivering
- Rapid heartbeat
- Rapid breathing
- Confusion or disorientation
As sepsis worsens, symptoms can include:
- Low blood pressure
- Clammy or discolored skin
- Low urine output
- Organ failure
In elderly or very ill people, sepsis may cause more subtle symptoms like worsening confusion or declining health. Seek medical care immediately if sepsis is suspected, as early treatment greatly improves outcomes.
What causes blood poisoning?
Blood poisoning is caused by the spread of infection throughout the body via the bloodstream. Common sources of infection leading to sepsis include:
Bacterial lung infections like pneumonia are a leading cause of sepsis. Pneumonia occurs when bacteria or viruses infect the air sacs of the lungs, causing them to fill with fluid or pus. This provides a rich site for bacterial growth and spread to the bloodstream.
Urinary tract infection (UTI)
A UTI that travels up the urinary tract can lead to kidney infection (pyelonephritis). Bacteria may then rapidly multiply and enter the blood circulation. UTIs are a particular risk factor for sepsis in elderly populations.
This serious bacterial skin infection causes swelling, redness, and pain in the infected area. The bacteria can penetrate deep into the skin layers, enter the lymphatic system, and reach the blood.
Intravenous line infections
IV lines allow easy access for bacteria on the skin to enter directly into the bloodstream, increasing sepsis risk. This may occur in hospital patients or with long-term IV lines.
An abscess is a pocket of pus caused by bacterial infection, often in internal organs or surfaces like the tonsils. Abscesses can rupture, releasing bacteria into the blood.
This is inflammation of the peritoneum, the membrane lining the abdominal cavity, often due to a ruptured organ like the appendix, stomach, or intestines. Bacteria and contents of these organs can leak out, causing widespread infection.
Even a small break in the skin can allow bacteria to enter tissue and the bloodstream. Some wounds at higher risk include surgical incisions, burns, insect bites, catheters, and pressure ulcers.
Who is at risk for blood poisoning?
While anyone can get sepsis, some people are at higher risk. Groups at increased risk of developing blood poisoning include:
- Adults 65 years or older
- Children younger than 1
- People with chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer, kidney or liver disease
- People with weakened immune systems
- Patients in intensive care units
- People with recent trauma or surgeries
- Burn victims
- Intravenous drug users
Factors that further increase susceptibility include:
- Older age
- Very young or advanced age
- Pre-existing health conditions
- Recent infection or hospitalization
- Chronic diseases
- Poor nutrition
- Indwelling catheters
- Invasive treatments
With prompt treatment, most people can recover completely from sepsis. But the risk of complications and death is higher among populations with vulnerabilities like age, chronic illness, or weak immunity.
How does blood poisoning develop?
Blood poisoning stems from the immune system’s spiraling inflammatory response to uncontrolled infection in the body. It typically develops in several stages:
1. Local infection
The process begins when bacteria or fungi enter a localized site in the body, such as the lungs, skin, or urinary tract. This causes an infection like pneumonia or a UTI.
2. Invasion into the bloodstream
The pathogens and toxins produced by the infection then make their way into the blood circulation. This allows the infection to spread throughout the body.
3. Immune system response
The immune system detects the spread of harmful bacteria and responds by releasing chemicals called cytokines that trigger inflammation. This aims to destroy the infection and stop its spread.
The resulting cascade of inflammatory responses becomes amplified and dysregulated, causing damage throughout the body. Blood pressure drops severely, multiple organs begin to malfunction, and septic shock can occur.
5. Septic shock
In severe sepsis, circulatory and cellular metabolism are impaired, depriving tissues of oxygen and allowing the infection to rage unchecked. This causes septic shock, which carries a high risk of organ failure and death.
6. Multiple organ dysfunction syndrome
Widespread inflammatory responses severely damage multiple organs, including the lungs, kidneys, and liver. This can lead to multiple organ dysfunction syndrome, with high mortality rates.
So in summary, sepsis is caused by the immune system spiraling out of control while trying to combat severe infection spreading through the body via the bloodstream. Rapid treatment is vital.
Can blood poisoning be prevented?
There are some important steps you can take to prevent the onset of sepsis:
- Get vaccinated – Be up to date on recommended vaccines to protect against infections that could lead to sepsis, like flu, pneumonia, and meningitis.
- Practice good hygiene – Wash your hands thoroughly and often, disinfect surfaces, avoid contact with sick people, and follow food safety guidelines to avoid infections.
- Manage medical conditions – If you have diabetes, cancer, kidney disease, or other illnesses, follow your treatment plan closely to keep your health stable.
- Monitor wounds – Clean even minor scrapes and cuts properly, watch for signs of infection like redness and swelling, and cover with clean bandages.
- Avoid infection spread – Follow healthcare provider instructions for clearing infections completely with antibiotics or drainage before they can spread.
- Use IV antibiotics wisely – Take oral antibiotics when possible, replace IV lines as recommended, and use sterile technique for at-home IV or catheter care.
While not every instance of sepsis can be avoided, good prevention habits lower overall risk. Seek prompt care if any symptoms of blood poisoning develop to improve chances of recovery.
When to see a doctor for blood poisoning
If you notice any potential signs of sepsis, it is crucial to seek medical care immediately for rapid treatment. Go to an emergency room right away or call 9-1-1 if you have:
- Fever over 101°F (38°C) plus one other symptom like chills, rapid breathing or heart rate, or confusion
- A probable infection along with indications of organ problems like kidney failure or difficulty breathing
- Signs of shock like low blood pressure, paleness, cold extremities, or collapsed veins
- Uncontrolled infection or pus/fluid draining from a wound or injection site
- Progressive skin changes like discoloration, rash, or swelling around a wound
Do not wait to see if symptoms improve – sepsis is a medical emergency requiring hospitalization. Call a doctor for assessment if you have a high risk condition like a weakened immune system or known infection and feel severely ill or declining. Early treatment is urgent for the best chance of recovery and survival.
How is blood poisoning diagnosed?
Doctors use the following approaches to diagnose sepsis:
Patient history and physical exam
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms, medical history, existing health conditions, and recent procedures or illnesses that may have caused an infection. They will listen to your heart and lungs, check blood pressure, temperature, and oxygen levels, and look for any signs of infection or organ problems.
These can show signs of inflammation and infection, such as:
- High white blood cell count
- Presence of bacteria or antigens in the blood
- Elevated C-reactive protein (CRP)
- High or low count of platelets, which help blood clot
A blood sample is taken to try to grow and identify the specific bacteria causing the infection. This pinpoints the appropriate antibiotics to treat the pathogens.
X-rays, CT scans, or ultrasounds can identify problems like pneumonia, abscesses, or inflammation that could be the source of infection.
Urine or fluid cultures
Urine or fluid samples may be taken from the suspected infection site to grow bacteria and determine the types present.
Once sepsis is diagnosed, treatment focuses on identifying the underlying infection, delivering antibiotics, managing organ problems, and preventing complications.
How is blood poisoning treated?
Hospitalization in an intensive care unit is usually required to treat sepsis. Treatment focuses on:
Broad-spectrum antibiotics are typically given intravenously to fight the systemic infection before lab tests can confirm the type of pathogen. Antibiotic choice is adjusted once a specific bacteria is identified.
Large amounts of IV fluids help improve blood pressure and increase circulation to deprived organs and tissues.
Medicines like vasopressors or insulin help stabilize blood pressure and cardiac function. Painkillers and sedatives may be used to reduce discomfort and stress.
Kidney dialysis, mechanical ventilation, or medications can help take stress off failing organs to aid recovery.
Treatment of infection source
Steps like draining an abscess may be needed to clear the initial infection triggering sepsis. Damaged tissue may require surgery.
Prevention of complications
Steps are taken to prevent secondary problems like respiratory failure, acute respiratory distress syndrome, blood clots, or multiple organ dysfunction.
Recovery time in the hospital varies based on factors like age, health status, and disease severity. Ongoing monitoring after discharge is important as well.
What are the complications of blood poisoning?
Sepsis can progress rapidly and lead to extremely dangerous complications:
This results when sepsis causes a dangerous drop in blood pressure, impairing circulation. Multiple organs quickly begin to fail without sufficient oxygen. Septic shock has a mortality rate of up to 50%.
Fluid buildup and inflammation in the lungs can lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). This impairs breathing function and requires mechanical ventilation.
Kidney, liver, lungs, and other organs can be damaged by reduced blood and oxygen flow. Organ failure exponentially increases sepsis mortality.
Inadequate circulation can cause tissue death (gangrene) in the fingers, toes, and other extremities. This may require amputation.
Sepsis increases risk of blood clot formation in the legs and lungs. These can break loose and block blood flow.
Many sepsis survivors experience lasting effects like fatigue, muscle weakness, joint pain, and psychological issues that may require rehabilitation.
Rapid treatment is vital, as complications can arise quickly and result in permanent organ damage or death. Call 9-1-1 with sepsis symptoms before complications have time to develop.
What is the mortality rate for blood poisoning?
When sepsis progresses to septic shock, mortality rates are extremely high. However, rapid modern treatment can greatly improve chances of survival:
- Sepsis mortality overall: 10-20%
- Septic shock mortality: Around 50%
- Mortality in patients already hospitalized: 30-50%
- Mortality with quick detection and treatment: Less than 10%
The affected patient’s age, underlying health, and how advanced the sepsis is before treatment all impact prognosis. Sepsis survival rates are highest when it is identified and treated in the emergency room before it worsens.
Factors associated with higher mortality risk include:
- Older age, over 60 years old
- Preexisting chronic illnesses
- Weakened immune system
- Kidney or liver dysfunction
- Delayed or inadequate treatment
- Bacterial resistance to antibiotics
Intensive modern ICU care has helped decrease sepsis deaths over recent decades. However, early recognition and rapid, aggressive treatments are key to survival.
Can you recover fully from blood poisoning?
With prompt, effective treatment the majority of younger, previously healthy people can make a full recovery from sepsis. However, the seriousness of complications increases with age and chronic health conditions.
Lingering effects are common even after successful treatment. Many sepsis survivors experience:
- Extreme fatigue, exhaustion
- Muscle weakness or nerve damage
- Difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, confusion
- Anxiety, depression, PTSD
- Sleep disruptions, nightmares
- Reduced quality of life
This collection of effects is sometimes called post-sepsis syndrome or PSS. Supportive aftercare, follow-up rehabilitation, physical therapy, cognitive therapy, and sometimes medication can help manage PSS symptoms. Most patients show gradual improvement over time.
Kidney failure or amputations due to tissue death may cause permanent disabilities requiring significant lifestyle adjustments. Talk with your doctor about any ongoing health impacts after sepsis and how to maximize your recovery.
Blood poisoning is a dangerous condition arising from the immune system’s over-reactive response to uncontrolled infection in the body. It requires emergency care to halt its rapid progression and avoid permanent organ damage or death. The key to survival is recognizing sepsis symptoms early and getting treatment immediately. Preventive measures can also reduce overall risk. With today’s medical interventions, outcomes are vastly improved – but only when sepsis is caught right away before complications take hold. Being aware of the signs and risk factors allows the best chance of recovery for anyone developing this life-threatening complication.