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Surviving Sepsis: Symptoms and Treatment of a Silent Killer

Written and medically reviewed by Dorcas Morak, Pharm.D

Updated on October 12th, 2022

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Designated by the Sepsis Alliance is 2011, September is Sepsis Awareness Month. The month is devoted to bringing education about a dangerous condition and honoring those affected. Every year, over one million Americans develop severe sepsis and 15% to 30% die as a result. According to the World Health Organization, it’s estimated that over 30 million individuals are affected by sepsis each year worldwide and that the condition causes 6 million deaths. In honor of Sepsis Awareness Month, here’s what you need to know about sepsis.

What is Sepsis?

When faced with an infection, your immune system releases chemicals into the bloodstream to fight it. In some cases, the chemicals can actually cause inflammation, which can then lead to tissue damage and organ failure. Untreated, it can even lead to death.

While sepsis can affect anyone, some are more susceptible than others. Those with the greatest risk include the very young, the very old, individuals with chronic illnesses, and those with weakened immune systems.

Untreated, sepsis can turn to severe sepsis. In addition to the typical signs of sepsis, signs of organ dysfunction begin to develop. Individuals can also develop what is known as septic shock, which is when a person’s blood pressure drops to dangerously low levels.

More than half of those who survive sepsis are left with post-sepsis syndrome (PSS). This term refers to the effects that linger even after the condition has been treated. The long-term effects of PSS include:

  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares
  • Fatigue
  • Damaged organs
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lower cognitive function
  • Poor self-esteem and depression

How Sepsis is Diagnosed

Diagnosing sepsis on your own can be difficult. The symptoms often start subtle and are fairly similar to those of a cold or the flu. Common symptoms of sepsis include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Extreme Pain
  • Sleepy or disoriented
  • Difficult to wake up
  • Pale or discolored skin

Early diagnosis is vital for getting treatment and preventing more serious complications from developing. Immediate treatment can even be life-saving.

To diagnose sepsis, medical testing is needed. Tests may include:

  • Blood tests to detect infection, clotting problems, and abnormal organ function
  • Other lab tests such as a urine test or respiratory secretions
  • Chest X-rays
  • Ultrasounds
  • MRIs

If you suspect that you might have sepsis, you must seek medical care right away. The longer you wait, the more life-threatening the condition becomes.

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Treatment for Sepsis

Early treatment is vital for boosting your chances of survival when it comes to sepsis. Those with sepsis need to be closely monitored and treated in the intensive care unit. Several treatments may be required.

Supportive Care

Some patients diagnosed with sepsis need supportive care such as oxygen or dialysis.


Surgery may be required to remove an infection such as an abscess or gangrene.


Treatment for sepsis generally begins with a broad-spectrum antibiotic such as azithromycin or ceftriaxone until the exact infection is determined. Once the infection is diagnosed, a more targeted antibiotic is provided. For instance, an infection caused by a urinary tract infection may be treated with cephalexin or ciprofloxacin.

Taking steps to reduce the spread of an infection can help to reduce your risk of developing sepsis. Stay up-to-date with your vaccinations and practice good hygiene. If you do develop an infection, seek medical treatment right away.

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