Skip to main content
Update Location

My Location

Update your location to show providers, locations, and services closest to you.

Enter a zip code
Select a campus/region

Stopping Sepsis: Understanding the Signs and Symptoms

Person putting their hand on a child's forehead

Sepsis is like an ember that sparks from a small campfire, suddenly threatening the whole forest. If not treated early, it can progress into septic shock. The resulting blood pressure drop can damage the lungs, kidney, liver and other organs. Severe enough, it can be deadly.

Sepsis strikes every 20 seconds and is responsible for 1 in 5 deaths worldwide. Children under the age of 5 account for 40% of all sepsis cases. Rapid diagnosis and treatment can prevent up to 80% of sepsis fatalities. With September being Sepsis Awareness Month, we shine a light on this serious condition.

Understanding sepsis

Sepsis is the body’s life-threatening over-reactive response to infection, in which the body attacks its own organs and tissues in lieu of battling the infection. The infection-fighting processes turn on the body, causing the organs to work poorly. The immune system releases a cascade of chemicals as the illness progresses, resulting in inflammation that causes organ failure and septic shock.

Infections caused by bacteria are most likely to cause sepsis, including those in the lungs such as pneumonia, as well as urinary tract, skin, digestive tract or postoperative infections. Viral infections such as the flu and COVID-19 can also lead to sepsis.

Knowing the symptoms

Sepsis symptoms can vary depending on the stage of the condition and the underlying cause, but common signs include:

  • Abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting
  • Chills or shivering
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Extreme fatigue or weakness
  • Fever or low body temperature
  • Low blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate or breathing
  • Skin rash or discoloration

Preventing sepsis

Sepsis can happen to anyone in response to any infection, young or elderly, sick or healthy. However, the most vulnerable populations are those over 65, children under 1 year and those with weakened immune systems.

Preventive measures include:

  • Stay up to date on vaccinations: This includes COVID-19, the flu, chickenpox, pneumonia and other vaccines recommended for your age and health. Vaccines can limit the severity of these illnesses and reduce their potential to lead to sepsis.
  • Manage chronic illnesses: Ensure blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease and other conditions are under control to keep the body strong to fight off infection. A healthy diet also feeds a healthy immune system.
  • Practice good hygiene: Regularly wash your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer. This is especially important after blowing your nose or using the washroom, exposure to large groups or public gatherings, and before eating. Keep cuts clean and covered until they are healed.

It’s About TIME

It’s About TIME is a national initiative to educate the public about sepsis and the urgent need to seek treatment when symptoms arise. Early detection is the best hope for survival and to limit disabilities from sepsis. The simple acronym TIME can help people recognize what to watch for:

  • Temperature: higher or lower than normal
  • Infection: may have signs and symptoms of an infection, such as fever, cough, chills and sweats, nasal congestion and redness, soreness or swelling in any area.
  • Mental decline: confused, sleepy, difficult to rouse
  • Extremely ill: severe pain, discomfort, shortness of breath

Sepsis is a medical emergency and rapid treatment can make all the difference in whether a patient recovers. Detection remains key. Family members of susceptible patients should recognize common symptoms and use TIME to detect sepsis early. If you experience a combination of these symptoms, please seek urgent medical care, or call 911.

Diagnosing and treating sepsis

There are no strict criteria to diagnose sepsis. That’s why providers use a combination of methods, including a physical exam, lab tests, X-rays and other tests to identify the infection and diagnose sepsis. Additional tests can determine the type of infection, where it is located and which parts of the body have been affected.

Sepsis is typically treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics and IV fluids. Once blood tests have been analyzed, antibiotics that target the specific strain of bacterium causing the infection may be used.

About the author

For the media

Media contact

Peyton Wesner
Communications Manager for UF Health External Communications (352) 273-9620