What Are the Early Signs of Sepsis?

Sepsis is your body's severe response to an infection that has entered your bloodstream. More than 1.7 million Americans get sepsis each year, and about 350,000 people in the United States die from sepsis annually. Early recognition and quick treatment are key to surviving sepsis, but many people do not know what it looks like.

This article will outline what sepsis is, how it feels, and what to do if you think you're at risk for it.

A close up of a person's hand in a hospital bed with a pulse oximeter on their finger.

Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

What Is Sepsis?

Sepsis is the term that describes your body's reaction to an infection that has entered your bloodstream. The infection could start anywhere—for example, in your urinary tract or a wound—and spread throughout your body through your blood.

When this happens, your immune system launches a severe inflammatory response that can affect every system in your body. If left untreated, sepsis can progress to septic shock, a potentially fatal complication that causes low blood pressure and multi-organ failure.

Other Names

Sepsis may also be referred to as:

How Quickly Can Sepsis Develop?

Sepsis can develop quickly from initial infection and progress to septic shock in as little as 12 to 24 hours. You may have an infection that's not improving or you could even be sick without realizing it.

It can be hard to pinpoint exactly when an infection has moved from where it originated into the bloodstream, but when it does, quick recognition and treatment are critical to avoiding septic shock.

What Does Sepsis Feel Like?

When you are sick with an infection, it can be hard to tell if you are starting to feel worse. Generally, people who develop sepsis will start feeling more tired or confused and may have shaking or chills.

However, these symptoms can also appear with other types of infection, so it's important to call your healthcare provider if you have an infection that is not getting better with treatment.

Signs of Sepsis

Sepsis can share signs and symptoms (like fever) with other types of infections. However, in sepsis, the symptoms will get more pronounced when the infection enters your bloodstream.

Your symptoms may have been limited to one area of your body during the initial infection, but the symptoms of sepsis are felt throughout your entire body (systemic).

Common signs of sepsis include:

  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Shivering or chills
  • Severe pain or discomfort
  • Clammy or sweaty skin

Sepsis is a medical emergency. Seek immediate medical care if you experience any of these symptoms.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

It's important to see your healthcare provider if you are ill and not improving.

Your provider may want to do blood tests to look for evidence of sepsis, including blood cultures to identify a specific infectious organism.

However, studies have shown that in about a quarter to one-third of people hospitalized with sepsis or septic shock, the source of infection is never identified for sure.

Sepsis can get worse quickly and requires intensive treatments to control. Signs of severe sepsis or septic shock include:

  • A drop in your blood pressure
  • Trouble breathing
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Bell pain or diarrhea
  • Racing heart
  • Decreased urination
  • Restlessness or agitation
  • Fatigue or lethargy
  • Lightheadedness
  • Cool, pale skin

Sepsis is a medical emergency that can be life-threatening. Call 911 or go straight to the emergency department if you have any of these symptoms.

Risk Factors for Sepsis

All types of infections can lead to sepsis, but there are certain risk factors that can increase your risk of developing it. For example, people who are very young or elderly are at particularly high risk for developing sepsis. Other sepsis risk factors include:


Sepsis Treatment

Sepsis treatment usually requires hospitalization and the administration of intravenous (IV) antibiotics as quickly as possible.

You will be monitored for progression into septic shock. If this happens, you will need additional treatments to fight the infection and keep blood flowing to all of your organs.

As sepsis spreads through the body, your blood vessels widen to deliver more immune cells to all your tissues. However, this widening (dilation) of the blood vessels is also what causes your blood pressure to drop and blood flow to other parts of the body to decrease.

If this happens, your medical team will work to maintain adequate blood pressure and supply throughout your body while the infection is treated. Treatments used in septic shock may include:

If you are being treated for septic shock, expect to be admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU) for at least several days.

Summary

Sepsis is a serious progression of an infection that can quickly turn into septic shock or even lead to death. Follow your healthcare provider's recommended treatment plan if you have an infection, and seek additional care if the infection gets worse or does not improve with treatment.

A Word From Verywell

Sepsis is a serious condition that can develop from any type of infection. Recognizing the signs of sepsis early and getting treatment right away is essential to improving your outcomes and helping you recover from the condition.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can I develop sepsis and not know it?

    The signs and symptoms of early sepsis can also occur in other conditions and infections. Contact your provider if you've been sick and are not getting better, or if you suddenly develop a fever or other symptoms.

  • Can sepsis be cured?

    Sepsis must be treated quickly to avoid developing septic shock. Once sepsis progresses, it has a high rate of severe complications and death. Early sepsis is usually treated with antibiotics and IV fluids.

  • Can you treat sepsis with home remedies?

    Sepsis is considered a medical emergency and requires specialized medical treatment in a hospital. Delaying treatment could lead to serious complications or even death.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What Is Sepsis?.

  2. Contou D, Roux D, Jochmans S, et al. Septic Shock With No Diagnosis at 24 Hours: A Pragmatic Multicenter Prospective Cohort Study. Crit Care. November 2016;20(360). doi:10.1186/s13054-016-1537-5

  3. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus. Septic Shock.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How Is Sepsis Diagnosed and Treated?.

By Rachael Zimlich, BSN, RN
 Rachael is a freelance healthcare writer and critical care nurse based near Cleveland, Ohio.