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Sepsis: When an Infection Can Become a Silent Killer

August 30, 2021

Sepsis is a potentially life-threatening condition for anyone with an infection, affecting 49 million people worldwide each year. It can kill anyone.

Boxer Muhammad Ali, Pope John Paul II and Muppets creator Jim Henson are among the people who have died from complications related to sepsis, the body’s extreme reaction to infection that causes tissue damage, organ failure and, in these severe cases, death.

Sepsis is often referred to as a “silent killer” because many symptoms can be confused with, or related to, other medical conditions. It’s a leading cause for hospital admissions and mortality, with 1.7 million new cases each year in the United States. Sepsis takes a life every 2 minutes — 270,000 lives lost to sepsis every year. That’s more than lives lost to opioid overdoses, breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. It’s a public health crisis.

Sepsis can occur in people of all ages but in many cases affects people with compromised immune systems, such as infants, children, the elderly and patients with other health conditions such as diabetes or respiratory illnesses. People age 65 or older or less than 1 year old are particularly vulnerable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than 90 percent of adults and 70 percent of children who developed sepsis had a previous at-risk health condition.

Early and aggressive treatment is the best way to handle sepsis and decreases the progression to organ dysfunction and death.

Reducing your risk of infection can help to decrease your risk for sepsis say Alana Tartsinis, Registered Nurse for Quality & Safety for the East Region who coordinates Hartford Healthcare’s sepsis effort with Dr. Avital Porat, Medical Director of Quality & Safety at Hartford Hospital.

They recommend these actions to reduce the risk of sepsis:

  • Hand Hygiene: Frequent and thorough hand-washing decreases the spread of germs.
  • Vaccinations: Staying up to date with your vaccines helps to decrease risks of infections.
  • Promptly seek treatment for any concern of an infection.
  • Complete full treatment for infections as prescribed.

“Time matters when diagnosing and treating sepsis“ says Dr. Porat.

She recommends people seek medical attention for these possible signs of sepsis:

  • General weakness.
  • Change in mental status: Confusion, sleepiness and difficulty to arouse.
  • Difficulty breathing- short of breath at rest.
  • High heart rate.
  • Fever, shivering, feeling very cold.

Hartford Healthcare has many initiatives to identify sepsis symptoms and initiate timely treatment, including standardized education, resource tools and a new sepsis alert that identifies patients at high risk for sepsis in electronic medical records used by all Hartford Healthcare acute-care facilities. The alert assesses sepsis risk based on vital signs, lab results, medical history and medications. The alert also provides quick access to orders for sepsis management.

Sept. 13 is World Sepsis Day. Hartford Healthcare will recognize sepsis for month of September, raising awareness of this potentially deadly disease. 

If you have questions or concerns about sepsis, talk to your doctor. Be sure to ask about vaccinations. If you’re in need of a doctor, please visit myhhcdocs.org.