Sepsis (Blood Infection): Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis

Sepsis Overview

Sepsis is a condition in which the body is fighting a severe infection that has spread via the bloodstream. If a patient becomes "septic," they will likely be in a state of low blood pressure termed "shock." This condition can develop either as a result of the body's own defense system or from toxic substances made by the infecting agent (such as a bacteria, virus, or fungus).
People at risk for sepsis
People whose immune systems (the body's defense against microbes) are not functioning well because of an illness (such as cancer or AIDS) or because of medical treatments (such as chemotherapy for cancer or steroids for a number of medical conditions) that weaken the immune system are more prone to develop sepsis. It is important to remember that even healthy people can suffer from sepsis.

Because their immune systems are not completely developed, very young babies may get sepsis if they become infected and are not treated in a timely manner. Often, if they develop signs of an infection such as fever, infants have to receive antibiotics and be admitted to the hospital. Sepsis in the very young is often more difficult to diagnose because the typical signs of sepsis (fever, change in behavior) may not be present or may be more difficult to ascertain.

The elderly population, especially those with other medical illnesses such as diabetes, may be at increased risk as well.

The number of people dying from sepsis has almost doubled in the past 20 years. This is most likely due to the increased number of patients who suffer from sepsis.

There has been a large increase in sepsis because doctors have started treating cancer patients and organ transplant patients, among others, with strong medications that weaken the immune system.

Also, because of our aging population, the number of elderly people with weak immune systems has grown.

Finally, because of the increased and often inappropriate use of antibiotics to treat illnesses caused by viruses and not bacteria, many strains of bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics, making the treatment of sepsis more difficult in some cases.

When bacteria or other germs (infectious organisms) invade your body, your immune system mounts a defense that serves to control the infection and keep it from spreading. Inflammation in the affected area is one part of this defense. Inflammation helps the body repair and heal damaged tissues. Normally, a delicate balance of chemical signals called immune mediators or regulators start and then stop the inflammatory process.

In sepsis, however, the process becomes exaggerated. Inflammation extends beyond the infection site and affects the whole body.

Severe sepsis involves a complex cascade of events. The infectious agent and its toxic products provoke the release of too many immune regulators.

This triggers widespread inflammation and prompts the formation of microscopic clots in blood vessels throughout the body. At the same time, the overactive inflammatory response interferes with the body's natural ability to break down blood clots.

As a result, even as the heart works harder to pump blood, the clots prevent enough oxygen from reaching body organs and tissues. The out-of-control immune system chemicals may also damage body tissues.

In neonatal sepsis, the newborn may be exposed to bacteria or a virus in the birth canal because of pregnancy complications, such as premature rupture of membranes (water breaking). An infection or bleeding in the mother can also lead to neonatal sepsis. Newborns who require an IV tube or another catheter may develop an infection in the hospital.

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