One thing that makes severe infections so deadly is the massive inflammatory response from the body. When infectious agents get into the blood—a condition called septicemia—it leads to high fever, flushed skin, fast heart rate, low blood pressure, delirium, and swelling, known as sepsis. Not all infected people get sepsis, though there are about a million cases a year. The condition is difficult to predict; one of the biggest dangers is that it is often not recognized until it has developed. As a result, sepsis kills more people than prostate cancer, breast cancer, and AIDS put together.
Some patients are more prone to sepsis than others. Pneumonia and kidney and abdominal infections are more likely to lead to sepsis than other kinds of infections are. Regardless of location in the body, infections are more likely to result in sepsis in patients who are young, who are old, or who have weakened immune systems. Sepsis is often iatrogenic, meaning it is caused or worsened by otherwise needed and helpful medical interventions—it’s particularly common in hospital intensive care units and in patients who have breathing tubes or similar devices. People with burns or serious wounds in addition to infection are also more likely to develop sepsis. Incidence of the condition varies in different parts of the country, according to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, with concentrations in the Midwest, mid-Atlantic, and the South, though it’s not clear what it is about these areas that causes this concentration.
Now scientists are learning how health care professionals can see sepsis early and provide prompt treatment. Sepsis patients show poor mobility of white blood cells called neutrophils; be observing the cells and measuring their movement, doctors can determine which patients are starting to develop sepsis, and by using a compound called resolvin known to increase the mobility of the cells, doctors may be able to treat sepsis at the root rather than simply addressing the symptoms.
In addition, close monitoring of patients in health care settings is a key part of treating sepsis quickly or preventing it from developing. Nurses and doctors should be on alert to look for warning signs and early symptoms of sepsis, and be ready to administer tests and take action quickly.