Save yourself from sepsis

Created date

July 24th, 2019
Hands scrub, soap up, and lather under a stream of water.

Did you know? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists 18 types of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are public health threats here in the U.S. Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 

Sepsis is a condition in which infection runs rampant. It is essentially your immune system going into overdrive in an effort to fight an infection that is spreading throughout your body. In its most severe form, it can cause a life-threatening situation called septic shock, in which your organs become severely damaged and your blood pressure is dangerously low. 

Any type of bacteria (and occasionally viruses and fungi) can cause sepsis. 

Seniors are at a high risk of sepsis, especially people who have compromised immune systems due to underlying conditions, treatments (like chemotherapy), or certain medications.

In fact, just being over age 65 puts you at higher risk. A study in 2006 showed that seniors, who comprise about 12% of the U.S. population, account for 65% of sepsis cases in hospitals. Another study of 7 hospitals showed that the annual incidence of sepsis overall was about 3 cases per 1,000 patients; but for seniors, it was 26 cases per 1,000.

Common infections to watch out for at home

“Urinary tract infections can lead to sepsis, especially in older women,” says Teri Dreher, R.N., iRNPA, board-certified patient advocate and CEO of NShore Patient Advocates in Chicago, Ill. “Bacteria can migrate into the bloodstream because of aging changes in the vagina and urinary tract.”

Signs of a urinary tract infection include pain or burning with urination, frequency, urgency, or foul-smelling urine. “If you have incontinence, it may mask some symptoms,” Dreher says. 

If you have a wound resulting from surgery or other trauma, watch it carefully. “Bacteria in wounds also have easy access to the bloodstream,” Dreher says. “Any redness, heat, swelling, or cloudy drainage could be a sign of infection.”

Having diabetes puts you at a very high risk of wound infections. “Sometimes you may be developing wounds you don’t know about, such as blisters on your feet,” Dreher says. “It could take months to develop into an infection, so you can’t be complacent about seeking treatment.”

Infections of the lung and gastrointestinal tract are also among the top sources of sepsis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Signs of infection

In kids and younger adults, a fever is often the first sign of an infection. Not so for older adults. “Your internal thermostat doesn’t work as well as it used to, so you can’t assume there’s no infectious process starting if you have no fever,” Dreher says. 

The first sign of infection in seniors is something you may not expect. “A change in mental status is a red flag,” Dreher says. “Changes such as confusion, a sudden inability to do daily tasks, or disorientation need to be evaluated right away. Family, friends, or caregivers are usually the first people to notice these signs.”

You may also notice an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, or a rash. Some symptoms could be very vague, such as fatigue or weakness. “To be on the safe side, call your health care provider if you have any changes in your health,” Dreher advises. 

Bacteria breeding grounds 

Research shows that about 80% of sepsis infections begin outside of facilities. Nevertheless, hospitals, rehabs, and long-term care facilities are places where serious sepsis can begin. People in hospitals are already at risk due to illness or surgery. 

Complicating matters is the presence of so-called superbugs, or antibiotic-resistant bacteria. 

According to the CDC, at least 2 million people every year in the U.S. become infected with superbugs, and about 23,000 people die as a result. 

“The overuse of antibiotics has sped up the development of these serious infections,” Dreher says. “Antibiotics are sometimes prescribed when they may not be necessary.”

Staying safe

Infection protection is fairly simple, whether you are at home or in the hospital. “The first line of general infection control is thorough handwashing or using a hand sanitizer if soap and water aren’t available,” says Myla Carpenter, M.D., medical director at Charlestown, an Erickson Living community in Catonsville, Md. “You should also make sure you receive immunizations such as an annual flu shot and a pneumonia vaccine if indicated.

“You can also protect yourself by avoiding crowds and people who are ill,” Carpenter adds.

If you are in a facility, there are some extra things you can do to protect yourself. “When someone enters your room, whether it is a staff member, family, or friends, ask them to either wash their hands or use hand sanitizer,” Dreher says. “There are almost always dispensers in the rooms.”

Antibiotics might be part of your treatment plan, but always ask why you are receiving them. “In some instances, you might not necessarily need them, especially if they are given for a preventive reason,” Dreher says.

Ultimately, the best thing you can do is go home as soon as possible. “Do all you can to get better,” Dreher says. “That will make you stronger and more able to fight infection.”