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What You Should Know About Sepsis

Centers For Disease Control And Prevention

Sepsis is caused when the body is overwhelmed by an infection and can be life threatening. Based on a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sepsis kills more people than heart attacks in the U.S. 

And in Reno, doctors are seeing an increase in sepsis cases at Renown Regional Medical Center.  

Dr. Jeremy Gonda is a critical care specialist and an emergency room physician with Renown Regional Medical Center. He says sepsis is associated with a combination of symptoms.

Q. What is sepsis and when can someone get it?

A. Sepsis is a life-threatening medical condition that starts with an infection. That infection can be something very simple like a urinary tract infection, a skin infection, but can be anywhere in your body. It can be bacterial, viral, or fungal. Your immune system, in an effort to fight that infection, for some reason, in patients with sepsis, starts to go awry and revs up which causes injuries to your normal cells. If not recognized and treated quickly, it will eventually lead to organ failure and death.

Q. Are there any populations that are particularly vulnerable to sepsis?

A. The elderly, as well as young children and infants, and those with chronic medical conditions including diabetes, COPD [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease], heart disease or cancer, they tend to get infections more often than the general population. They are more prone to developing sepsis.

Q. As a Reno-based emergency room doctor, are you seeing more sepsis?

A. We are. We’ve been tracking sepsis for the last several of years at Renown and we’ve seen an approximately 25 percent increase in sepsis cases over these last few years. I think it can be attributed to a few different things. One, there is much better recognition of sepsis from medical staff and healthcare providers. Also, the aging population puts our Reno population at higher risk of developing sepsis. There’s also other things we’re starting to see like antibiotic-resistance, lack of immunizations, or just routine health maintenance that people are forgetting or refusing to do. 

Q. Is sepsis something people in the community should be concerned about?

A. I think it’s definitely something the community should be aware of. I don’t think everyone should rush in for every sniff or ache. But I think it’s important for them to know that sepsis does exist and to know what some of the warning signs are. I think an easy way to learn what some of the warning signs are to remember the acronym sepsis, S-E-P-S-I-S.

S, if you start to have shivering or those chills and you just can’t seem to get warm even though everyone else around you is warm.

E is for extreme pain or discomfort. If you have your normal earache from your ear infection, but it starts to get worse than you’ve ever experienced before, that could be a sign that it could be sepsis.

P is for pale, so if you start to notice that your skin is becoming pale or blue or discolored.

S is sleepy. And this is one that is often missed, especially in the elderly, but patients often become confused or just not themselves. And that can be an early sign of sepsis.

I, often patients describe that they feel like ‘I might die,' they feel a sense of doom.

S is shortness of breath.

Those are some of the signs that your run-of-the-mill infection might be developing into sepsis and that you need to seek medical attention early and quickly.

Q. So what should people do if they are experiencing the symptoms that you described?

A. I think it’s important to remember that most people will develop an infection and will be able to treat it on an outpatient basis with antibiotics through their primary care doctor or in urgent care. Most people don’t develop sepsis. However, it gets sticky, especially in the elderly or the young. These basic infections can turn into sepsis quickly, if you or your loved ones are in that category, and you feel like they’re just sicker than they should be for that type of infection, especially if they’re having those symptoms that are remote from the site of infection.  For example, if they have a cut on their arm and there is some redness there but now they’re starting to have the shaking chills or getting confused or short of breath. Those are the patients that need to be taken to the emergency department to be evaluated.

If they are having a hard time breathing or not keeping anything down, or have a low-blood pressure—if you’re able to check that at home—those are probably the patients that should probably  go by 911. But I think for the general population, if you develop an infection, it’s completely safe to start with your primary care doctor or even in urgent care, unless you feel that the patient is much sicker, then those patients should go right to the emergency department.  

Anh Gray is a former contributing editor at KUNR Public Radio.
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