Septic Shock

What is septic shock? Severe infection or sepsis that leads to a dangerous drop in blood pressure, organ failure and possibly death is known in medical language as septic shock. This occurs when the immune system launches an extreme response to severe infection that has spread through the blood to the different tissues of the body.

This life-threatening condition often occurs in immune-compromised individuals and elderly or very young patients, whose immune systems are weak or unable to deal with infection effectively. Patients who are suffering from septic shock need intensive care monitoring and treatment. The death rate from this condition may reach up to 50 percent.

What Are the Symptoms of Septic Shock?

The symptoms of septic shock involve various parts of the body, including your brain, heart, liver, kidneys, and intestines. These may include:

  • Pale, cold arms and legs
  • Lightheadedness
  • Very low or high body temperature, chills
  • No urine or low urine output
  • Low blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Agitation, restlessness, confusion or lethargy
  • Skin discoloration or rash


Possible complications of septic shock include:

  • Respiratory failure, since your lungs are not able to take in enough oxygen
  • Heart failure, because your heart is not able to pump enough blood to the body
  • Kidney failure, when you cannot produce enough urine
  • Abnormalities in blood clotting, which increases your risk of internal bleeding

These serious life-threatening conditions need urgent treatment.

When to See a Doctor

You must seek immediate help if you experience a serious infection that could lead to septic shock. If you are diagnosed with sepsis or septic shock, you are most likely to be treated in the intensive care unit (ICU) with careful monitoring. In most cases, treatment begins in the emergency department where various machines and tubes will be attached to your body to evaluate your blood pressure, urine output, and blood oxygenation.

What Are the Causes & Risk Factors of Septic Shock?

Any type of infection can lead to sepsis. These include bacteria, fungi, or viruses. Bacterial infections usually develop in people who are in the hospital. Sepsis may develop from:

  • Infections in the digestive system
  • Infections in the lungs such as bronchitis, pneumonia, or other lower respiratory tract infections
  • Infections in the urinary tract
  • Infections in the reproductive system

Risk Factors

Certain factors may increase your risk of developing sepsis or septic shock. Elderly individuals and those who have chronic illness often have a greater risk of developing septic shock. Other susceptible individuals include newborns, pregnant women, and patients with weakened immune systems because of HIV/AIDS or cancer treatment. Other factors that put you at risk of septic shock include:

  • Major surgery
  • Long-term hospitalization
  • Diabetes
  • Drug use through injection
  • Very sick ICU patients
  • Use of invasive medical devices such as breathing tubes or intravenous catheters, which may introduce bacteria into your body

What Are the Treatments for Septic Shock?

Early diagnosis and treatment of septic shock may increase your chances of survival. Important modes of treatment include:

  • Oxygen therapy – to help increase oxygen in your blood and help you breathe easier. Oxygen may be delivered through a face mask, a nose tube, or an endotracheal tube that is inserted into the mouth. Patients who have severe difficulty breathing may be hooked to a mechanical ventilator.
  • Intravenous fluid therapy to increase blood flow and raise blood pressure may be administered.
  • Surgery may be needed in certain cases of severe sepsis to remove dead tissue, which resulted from very low blood pressure. Procedures may include removing infected tissues, draining an abscess (a collection of pus), or removing a medical device, such as an infected artificial heart valve.

Medications to increase blood flow to the vital organs (brain, heart, liver, and kidneys) may be prescribed. These include:

  • Inotropic medicines or inotropes like dobutamine, which stimulate the heart and increase the strength of its contraction. This helps to increase the delivery of oxygen-rich blood to your organs and tissues.
  • Vasopressors, which include adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine. These drugs make the blood vessels contract or narrow, thus raising your blood pressure and increasing the flow of blood to the rest of your body. This allows the vital organs to return to their proper functioning.
  • Antibiotics – to treat bacterial infection that leads to sepsis and septic shock. The type of antibiotics used will depend on the type of infection and the origin of infection. Usually, antibiotic treatment is started before the test results are out in order to increase a patient’s chances of survival. This may include two to three types of antibiotics to target various possible infectious agents. However, when the specific bacterium that is causing the infection is identified, your doctor will prescribe a more suitable type of antibiotic that is most effective.
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