What is septicemia?
Septicemia is also called sepsis. It is the medical name for blood poisoning by bacteria. It is your body’s most extreme response to an infection. Septicemia that goes on to be septic shock can be fatal in up to half of cases. This depends on the type of germ involved. Septicemia is a medical emergency. You need medical care right away. If not treated, septicemia can quickly cause tissue damage, organ failure, and death.
What causes septicemia?
These infections are most often linked to septicemia:
Lung infections (pneumonia)
Urinary tract infections
Infections in the intestines or gut
The 3 germs that most often develop into septicemia are:
Staphylococcus aureus (staph)
Escherichia coli (E. coli)
Some types of streptococcus
Who is at risk for septicemia?
An infection can happen to anyone. But certain things can make it more likely for you to get septicemia. These include:
Having a chronic health condition such as diabetes, cancer, lung disease, weakened immune system, or kidney disease
Being age 65 or older
Being younger than 1 year old
Having community-acquired pneumonia
Having been in the hospital in the past. This is especially true if you were in the hospital for an infection.
What are the symptoms of septicemia?
People with septicemia often have a skin rash (hemorrhagic rash). It is a cluster of tiny blood spots that look like pinpricks in the skin. If not treated, these gradually get bigger and begin to look like fresh bruises. These bruises then join together to form larger areas of purple skin damage and discoloration.
Septicemia develops very quickly. You quickly get very ill. You may:
Lose interest in food and surroundings
Have a high heart rate
Be sensitive to light
Complain of a lot of pain or discomfort
Feel cold, with cool hands and feet
Become lethargic, anxious, confused, or agitated
You may also fall into a coma. Septicemia can also be fatal.
If you become ill more slowly, you may have some of the signs of meningitis. The symptoms of septicemia may look like other health conditions. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
How is septicemia diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider look for physical symptoms such as low blood pressure, fever, higher heart rate, and higher breathing rate. You will need lab tests to check for signs of infection and organ damage. Some symptoms of septicemia can often be seen in other health conditions. These include fever and trouble breathing. This makes septicemia hare to diagnose when it first starts.
How is septicemia treated?
Treatment will depend on your symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.
Sepsis is a life-threatening emergency that needs to be treated right away. You will need to be in hospital. Treatment will start as soon as possible.
Managing blood flow to organs
Stopping the source of the infection
Many people need oxygen and IV (intravenous) fluids to help get blood flow and oxygen to the organs. You may need to use a breathing machine (ventilator). You may also need kidney dialysis. Sometimes you may need surgery to remove tissue damaged by the infection.
How can I prevent septicemia?
Preventing infection is the way to prevent septicemia. One of the best ways to prevent infection is to wash your hands often. Wash your hands with clean, running water for at least 20 seconds. Wash your hands:
After using the toilet
Before and after caring for a sick person
Before, during, and after preparing food
Before and after cleaning a wound or cut
After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
After touching an animal or handling pet food or pet treats
After changing diapers or cleaning up after a child who has used the toilet
After touching garbage
Keeping your immune system strong can also help prevent septicemia. To do this:
Keep cuts clean and covered until healed.
Manage chronic health conditions such as diabetes.
Maintain a healthy weight.
Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet.
Get regular exercise.
Get recommended vaccines on schedule.
When an infected area is not getting better or is getting worse, get medical care.
When to Call a Healthcare Provider
Key points about septicemia
Septicemia is blood poisoning by bacteria.
It is a serious condition that can harm your organs and even cause death.
It is caused by certain infections such as pneumonia and urinary tract infections.
People who have chronic conditions are more likely to develop septicemia.
Septicemia is a medical emergency and needs to be treated right away.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
News & Publications
Our publication keeps health care professionals up to date on the latest research and clinical advances from Mass General.
News and notes from the largest hospital-based research program in the United States
The Patient Gateway provides secure online access to your health information whenever you need it. Check upcoming appointments, communicate with your doctor’s office, review medications and pay medical bills—all seamlessly online 24/7.