What is Bacterial Sepsis?

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  • Written By: Jennifer Long
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2018
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Bacterial sepsis, also called a blood infection, is a severe type of infection. It is caused by a dangerously high amount of bacteria in the bloodstream. These high amounts of bacteria overwhelm the immune system with toxins produced by the bacteria. The toxins and bacteria that trigger an immune system response then lead to a whole slew of reactions within the body, including swelling to an increase in white blood cells.

The bacterial infection that causes bacterial sepsis can start anywhere in the body. Most commonly, an infection that occurs in the lungs, kidneys, or liver are responsible. When sepsis occurs in hospital patients, it usually starts at surgical sites and intravenous (IV) lines. In some cases, sepsis comes from bed sores and minor cuts if they are not treated properly.

Bacterial sepsis is very serious and life threatening. It qualifies for classification as Systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS). Extremely elevated amounts of cytokines in the body cause an immune system response on a large scale. Widespread inflammation of the whole body usually occurs. As the bacteria travel through the body, vital organs become affected.

This condition should not be confused with viral sepsis. Although the two types are very similar, they differ in the source of sepsis and the treatments used. Sepsis caused by bacteria involves bacterial infections, while viral sepsis involves viral infections. Viral sepsis can only be treated with anti-viral medications.


Symptoms of bacterial sepsis vary on the severity and how quickly it has been discovered. Generally, doctors can diagnose sepsis from the onset of the inflammation and blood tests. Other symptoms can occur simultaneously and include fever, an elevated heart rate, and an increased respiratory rate. Severe sepsis is determined if urine output decreases, heart function becomes abnormal, or mental status changes. Sepsis shock occurs when severe sepsis progresses and causes low blood pressure.

When diagnosed early, bacterial sepsis is treated aggressively with blood spectrum antibiotics given through an IV. Testing is done to determine the bacteria, and antibiotic therapy is adjusted if necessary. If the source of sepsis can be identified, additional treatment can be beneficial, particularly when the sepsis started as an infection from wounds or IVs.

If the sepsis is not treated properly or early enough and progresses to sepsis shock, serious and permanent damage can occur. Vital organs, such as the heart and liver, cannot handle the stress of sepsis shock. In its earlier stages, organs may have difficulty functioning, but sepsis shock can cause a complete shutdown.



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