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What You Need To Know About Sepsis

Blood smear from sepsis.septicemia can progress to sepsis.

Sepsis is the body's overwhelming response to infection. It's potentially life-threatening, and recently killed actress Patty Duke. More than 200-thousand cases of sepsis are reported each year, but you can survive it if it’s caught early. 

Valerie Craig, Vice President of Clinical Effectiveness and Patient Safety for Methodist Health System, talks about sepsis.

Highlights from Craig’s interview:

What is sepsis?  “Sepsis really is the body’s overwhelming response to an infection. If we think about all the larger organs of the body and how they’re impacted, they become really selfish. Rather than working together, they start working to take care of themselves. In doing that, the body eventually becomes dehydrated, those organs become inflamed and then one after another, they begin to shut down. When each of those organs is trying to fight for themselves, they’re pulling in whatever they can to hold on to, whether good or bad. They’re not really getting what they need, but they’re holding on and not letting the nutrients cycle through.”

There are various stage of sepsis:  “Sepsis, much like cancer, folks are diagnosed at different stages, and we often say early detection will assist with treatment and recovery. The same is true with sepsis. So the earlier we can detect those signs and symptoms – some them we can see, other are related to lab results and things like that that we test for when patients immediately present to the hospital. Or when we seem them on the floor, they might be in a unit and they begin to not look right, we do additional testing. And the sooner we can begin to give them a lot of fluid, the right antibiotics to treat it quickly, the better possibilities and chance we have of the body recovering.”

Is sepsis difficult to diagnose? “It’s not necessarily difficult to diagnose, but it requires the right tests being done quickly so we can get those results back and really know we’re doing the right thing by the patient.”

Why hospitals keep a close watch on sepsis: “It’s one of those things not just one or two hospitals, bus hospitals all over the nation have been vigilant about sepsis, and what does it look like and how do we treat it, because it’s one of those illnesses that we do believe we can get a handle on and reduce the number of patients that die as a result of it if we can put proper treatments and protocols into place to catch it soon and treat it more rapidly.”

What you can do prevent sepsis: “We laugh at it or scoff at it, but things like washing your hands. All of those elements of prevention: Staying healthy. Getting treatment when you need treatment. And having a primary care doctor, seeking that out when it’s appropriate, having annual exams. All of those things are very important. And they are things that, unless we are sick or feel sick, we rarely seek care. Again, that’s something other nations have figured out a bit better than we have, of those regular checkups and making sure we’re healthy, and the more we can promote health and wellness in general, the healthier our culture’s going to become.”

For more information:

CDC: Sepsis 

U.S. National Library of Medicine: Sepsis 

What Killed Patty Duke? 

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.