Sepsis As The ‘Silent Killer’: Know The Symptoms

September 13, 2016

Sepsis can kill anyone. Boxer Muhammed Ali, Pope John Paul II and Muppets creator Jim Henson 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. Yet it kills close to 260,000 people each year, the third most common cause of death in the United States

September is Sepsis Awareness month (and Sept. 13 is World Sepsis Day). Since Ali’s death in June, health professionals have used the opportunity to shed light on the complex condition.

“Sepsis does not discriminate,” said Dr. Setu Vora, physician and director of performance improvement and critical care at Backus Hospital.

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 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. Antibiotics are frequently prescribed but in more complicated cases intravenous fluids, ventilation and steroids are often needed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises people to get vaccinated against the flu, pneumonia and other illnesses or diseases to help avoid sepsis. Cleaning scrapes and wounds, practicing good hygiene and washing your hands regularly can also help avoid sepsis and other infections.

Time matters when diagnosing and treating sepsis. Seek immediate medical attention if you have a severe infection and are experiencing symptoms such as shivering, fever, chills, extreme pain or discomfort, clammy or sweaty skin, confusion or disorientation, shortness of breath and rapid heartbeat.

Sepsis: What To Watch


  • a fever above 101º F or a temperature below 96.8º F.
  • heart rate higher than 90 beats per minute.
  • breathing rate higher than 20 breaths per minute.
  • probable or confirmed infection.

You must have two of these symptoms before a doctor can diagnose sepsis.

Severe Sepsis

Severe sepsis occurs when there’s organ failure. You must have one or more of the following signs to be diagnosed with severe sepsis:

  • patches of discolored skin.
  • decreased urination.
  • changes in mental ability.
  • low platelet (blood clotting cells) count.
  • problems breathing.
  • abnormal heart functions.
  • chills due to fall in body temperature.
  • unconsciousness.
  • extreme weakness.
  • septic shock
    Symptoms of septic shock include the symptoms of severe sepsis, plus a very low blood pressure.