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What is Sepsis?

September is Sepsis Awareness Month.

Every year since 2011, September is marked as Sepsis Awareness Month. Despite being nearly 10 years since its designation, nearly half of adults in the United States have not heard of the devastating illness. 

In the US, more than 1.7 million people are diagnosed with sepsis each year. That is one person every 20 seconds and the numbers are rising. 

What is sepsis? Who can get it? Why does it need more awareness? We asked Ivinson’s Chief Nursing Officer, Nicole Rooney and Hospitalist Director, Dr. JJ Byers to pull back the curtain on sepsis and give us some answers.

What is sepsis?

Sepsis is the body’s response to severe infection,” Dr. Byers explained. When you get any sort of infection, whether it be viral, bacterial or fungal, the body develops a response to it to try to fight it off. Some people have more vigorous responses than others. That response can manifest itself as a fever, elevated heartrate, rapid breathing and all the things you associate with being sick.”

Dr. Byers and Nicole explain sepsis on a spectrum, with progressed cases leading to severe sepsis. Severe sepsis can include organ dysfunction, difficulty breathing and worsening symptoms. Dangerously low blood pressure and advanced symptoms can lead to the most severe form of sepsis, septic shock.

What are the symptoms of sepsis?

Typically, a person with sepsis may present with an altered mental status, meaning maybe they are confused or aren’t as awake as they usually are. Their vital signs are off, meaning a heart rate that is really high, or their blood pressure is really high or really low. Then there are lab values that are really out of range. We look at values like bilirubin, lactate, creatinine and white blood cell counts,” Nicole said.

It is important to identify these symptoms early. When it comes to sepsis, TIME is crucial.

T – Temperatures that are high or low 

I – Infection present

M – Mental decline

E – Extremely ill 

Who is at risk?

Anyone can get sepsis. That is why it is so important to focus on every patient who walks in our door who has a potential for infection,” Nicole said. I think what surprises people is that it’s not just a surgical site infection or pneumonia that can lead to sepsis, it is any type of infection. Other infections can be as common as a UTI or a diabetic ulcer that gets infected. Sepsis is your body’s response to this severe infection that is hitting the body. The body is trying to continually fight infection and without the proper interventions you progress to sepsis.”

Identifying Sepsis

Identifying sepsis early is the best thing we can do,” Nicole said. We have a screening tool when we are assessing a patient for an altered mental status, elevated or severely decreased temperature on arrival, and presence of a potential infection. If they had recent surgery, if they have eaten somewhere out of the ordinary, if they have traveled somewhere, really anything that could make you think as the care provider that they may have some type of infection. If you have two or more of those, then we start looking at whether this patient may be septic.” 

Raising Awareness

In 2013, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) identified sepsis as the leading cause for morbidity and mortality worldwide. 

Recognizing the symptoms of sepsis is probably the most critical part,” Dr. Byers said. If you have a fever greater than 100.4, if you are feeling like your heart is racing and you are having chills- that is the time to get checked out. It is crucial to not ignore the initial symptoms. Go into see your healthcare provider before you get too ill, especially if you have those conditions that put you at higher risk for having more severe infection.”

Stay tuned through the month of September for more information on sepsis and how Ivinson is working to identify sepsis sooner to create better patient outcomes. 

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