Sepsis leading to septic shock is a serious and often deadly illness, yet it remains an unfamiliar threat to most of the general public, as well as one of the most difficult diseases for doctors to diagnose and treat.
“The condition, which begins with an aggressive immune system reaction to an infection kills 18 million people around the world every year, including around 260,000 in the U.S. By many estimates, sepsis—and its most severe form, septic shock—is the leading cause of death for intensive care patients, and elders and dependent adults in the U.S. and the 10th most common cause of death for everyone else in the country” says Steven Peck, Esq.
Yet only one in five Americans recognizes the term, according to a 2011 study commissioned by the nonprofit group Sepsis Alliance, and of those survey participants who had heard of sepsis, most could not define it.
Even physicians, who learn about sepsis in medical school, often miss its early signs because they mimic other disorders and because the illness progresses so rapidly from what looks like a mild infection to a life-threatening situation.
As a result of these difficulties, doctors are often late to launch the necessary interventions, such as antibiotics to obliterate the infection, drugs to counteract a perilous drop in blood pressure, and a mechanical ventilator to raise dangerously low oxygen levels.
Sepsis begins innocuously enough when the immune system performs its usual task of recognizing invading bacteria, viruses or fungi. Immune cells release signaling proteins called cytokines to stimulate one another and overcome the invaders—but for poorly understood reasons, the immune cells release far more cytokines and other inflammatory molecules than is typical.
All the extra immune molecules surging through the bloodstream have the inadvertent effect of making blood vessels slack and permeable, reducing blood pressure and allowing the fluid component of the blood to seep into surrounding tissues. The blood components left behind clot in the smallest vessels, preventing oxygen from reaching major organs.
At this point, someone with sepsis has transitioned from the earliest stage of the disease, known as systemic inflammatory response syndrome, to the later stages of severe sepsis and septic shock. Confusion sets in, the heart’s electrical activity becomes erratic, the kidneys and other organs fail, and blood pressure cannot be raised even with large amounts of intravenous fluids and drugs.
About the Author
Attorney Steven Peck has been practicing law since 1981. A former successful business owner, Mr. Peck initially focused his legal career on business law. Within the first three years, after some colleagues and friend’s parents endured nursing home neglect and elder abuse, he continued his education to begin practicing elder law and nursing home abuse law.