This is a post prepared under a contract funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and written on behalf of the Mom It Forward Influencer Network for use in CDC’s Get Ahead of Sepsis educational effort. Opinions on this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of CDC.
You probably know someone who’s been ill or died from sepsis, but you may not recognize the name. That’s because, for some reason, it’s a condition that’s prevalent in the U.S. but not well-known. In fact, the Sepsis Alliance reports that only 55% of Americans have heard of sepsis. That’s a surprising statistic considering that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 1.5 million people develop sepsis each year in the U.S and at least 250,000 Americans die from sepsis each year.
It’s likely gone unknown for so long because often when someone dies, their death is sometimes attributed to some other underlying condition and not the sepsis that they ultimately succumbed to. For example, a death will be reported as a complication of surgery, cancer, pneumonia, etc., when in reality it was organ failure caused by sepsis. In fact, actress Patty Duke’s manager’s statement that, “Her cause of death was sepsis from a ruptured intestine” in 2016, has been seen said to be a significant milestone in the movement for sepsis awareness.
It’s so prevalent that the CDC has launched a new Get Ahead of Sepsis initiative with the goal of educating patients and their families. As part of that effort, I’m sharing the signs and symptoms of sepsis and how it’s touched my life. But most importantly, I want to highlight how using antibiotics when they’re not necessary is adding to the problem.
WHAT IS SEPSIS?
First though, let’s talk about what sepsis is. It happens when an infection that you already have triggers a “chain reaction” throughout your body. Often, the initial infection can be a skin infection, a urinary tract infection (UTI), or a lung infection.
I knew about septic shock because of my Aunt, but didn’t realize that it’s a severe form of sepsis. She traveled to Seattle to be treated after having complications from a gastric bypass. It was the 70’s and a new procedure, and they were unsure what was causing her to have chronic diarrhea, vomiting, and weight loss. I remember thinking that I’d never seen someone who looked so ill. She carried a coffee can with her everywhere to catch her vomit, her skin hung from her emaciated frame, her hair was thin, and she had dark circles around her eyes— she looked miserable.
She was admitted to the University of Washington Hospital, and I was tasked with visiting her to bring her a radio, so she’d have something to do while she was there— she was too sick to do much else. I was young and scared of what I might see in the hospital— but I remember as sick as she looked, she smiled and thanked me.
That was the last time I saw my aunt. I was 16 and she was 42. Upon her passing, her autopsy found that when they did the gastric bypass surgery, the surgeon nicked her bowel which caused an infection that led to her death
You’d think that times have changed. After all, the medical field has advanced a great deal since the 70’s, and weight loss surgery is performed routinely now. But a quick Internet search shows that people are still dying from sepsis after weight loss surgery today.
SEPSIS IS A LIFE-THREATENING CONDITION
Sepsis is serious business. It can cause tissue damage, organ failure, and death and it can do it pretty darn quickly, so it’s important to know the signs and symptoms. The CDC reports that sepsis signs and symptoms can include just one of the following signs and symptoms or a combination of them: confusion or disorientation; shortness of breath; high heart rate; fever, or shivering, or feeling very cold; extreme pain or discomfort; and clammy or sweaty skin.
Anyone can get an infection, and almost any infection can lead to sepsis. However, certain people are at higher risk. Those include older adults (65+), infants (under one year old), people with chronic health conditions like lung or kidney disease, diabetes, or those with weakened immune systems.
FOUR WAYS TO GET AHEAD OF SEPSIS
- Talk to your doctor or nurse about steps you can take to prevent infections. Some steps include taking good care of chronic conditions and getting recommended vaccines.
- Know the signs and symptoms of sepsis.
- Practice good hygiene, such as handwashing, and keeping cuts clean and covered until healed.
- ACT FAST. Get medical care IMMEDIATELY when an infection is not getting better or if it gets worse.
ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE AND SEPSIS
It’s challenging to treat sepsis. Antibiotics are not always effective because they are used so often even when they are not needed, and antibiotic resistant bacteria or “superbugs” can result. It’s become such a problem that according to the CDC, at least 2 million people in the U.S. become infected every year with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and as a direct result of these infections, at least 23,000 people die.
Download the Antibiotic Resistance from the Farm to the Table Infographic (pdf)
SHE DIED MUCH TOO YOUNG BECAUSE OF SEPSIS
We’ll never know how long my Aunt would have lived had they found the medical mistake earlier, prescribed the right drugs to take care of the infection that caused sepsis, or if she had not had the surgery in the first place. Her sister, my mother, is overweight too. She just celebrated her 79th birthday. I’ve always wondered if my Aunt had known what the future held, would she have made a different choice? Though I barely knew her, as a mother myself, I have to believe she would have chosen 40 years with her children over being the weight society pressured her to be.
I would have liked to have had the chance to spend more time with my aunt. My only memories of her are those of the hospital. She demonstrated every sign of sepsis; what a shame it wasn’t recognized in time.
GET EDUCATED ABOUT SEPSIS
The CDC provides educational materials and resources including fact sheets, infographic, brochures, and more for patients, families, and healthcare professionals.
Also check out this video called, “Four Ways to Get Ahead of Sepsis.”
To learn more about sepsis and how to prevent infections, visit www.cdc.gov/sepsis.
For more information about antibiotic prescribing and use, visit www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use.