Septic Embolism Causes, Symptoms, and Diagnosis

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If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with septic embolism, you likely have many questions about your condition, including how and why you got it, what to expect, and whether there is any treatment for it.

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Overview

Septic embolism is a type of infection inside a blood vessel. This term specifically refers to an infection that started in one part of the body and traveled through blood vessels to reach another part of the body, possibly blocking one or more blood vessels.

Typically, septic embolism is a bacterial infection that originates in the heart valves. This may be associated with infective endocarditis, an infection of the heart. An infection in the heart can result in a small blood clot, which may travel to other parts of the body.

When a bacterial infection or an infected blood clot travels from the heart to the brain, it can block a blood vessel in the brain, causing a stroke, transient ischemic attack (TIA), cerebral hemorrhage, meningitis, brain abscess, or a mycotic aneurysm.

Strokes resulting from a septic embolism are classified as septic strokes, which means infected strokes.

Causes 

There are a number of conditions and infections that can cause septic embolism, including:

  • Infected intravenous (IV) line
  • Implanted devices or catheters in the body
  • Heart valve infection
  • Endocarditis
  • Soft-tissue infection in the body
  • Certain dental procedures
  • Infected deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a blood clot in the veins
  • A weak immune system
  • Periodontal disease

There are also some lifestyle factors known to contribute to the risk of septic embolism. Intravenous (IV) drug use, in particular, increases the risk of a harmful infection that can cause endocarditis or septic embolism. Typically, when IV drug use is the cause of septic embolism, it begins when bacteria on the skin enter the body and cause an infection. The infection may develop slowly or could progress rapidly.

Infective endocarditis may cause destruction of the valves located in the heart, potentially resulting in complications such as congestive heart failure and recurrent septic embolism.

Symptoms 

There are a number of symptoms of septic embolism, but they tend to be non-specific symptoms along the lines of "feeling lousy." This is one of the reasons it takes a while to reach a diagnosis. If you persistently experience the symptoms of septic embolism, your healthcare provider will do a detailed medical checkup to search for the cause of your symptoms.

The following symptoms, broken down by category, can be signs of septic embolism.

Neurological symptoms include:

  • Hemiparesis
  • Facial droop
  • Double vision
  • Aphasia
  • Vertigo
  • Headache
  • Seizures
  • Altered mental status

Non-neurological symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Sharp chest or back pain
  • Numbness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Persistent cough
  • Tenderness in the spleen
  • Lightheadedness
  • Fainting
  • Inflammation

Diagnosis 

Septic embolism can be difficult to diagnose. Most people with septic embolism have a positive blood culture, meaning bacteria are detected in the blood. A positive blood culture helps direct your treatment if you have septic embolism, because your healthcare provider can identify which bacteria are present, and thus which antibiotic is expected to be most effective. A positive blood culture does not define the location or the cause of the infection.

Other diagnostic tests are used to further evaluate septic embolism to locate the area of infection and determine the extent of the infection.

Diagnostic Tests

Tests for septic embolism include:

  • Complete blood count (CBC)
  • Angiogram (an image of the blood vessels)
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Transesophageal echocardiogram
  • Electrocardiogram
  • Chest X-ray
  • Spinal tap

Treatment 

Treatment for septic embolism includes antibiotics to target the bacteria. However, sometimes antibiotics are not completely effective and, in some cases, surgery is necessary to repair a heart valve damaged by the infection.

Prevention 

Septic embolism cannot always be prevented, but sometimes it can. Some of the preventive measures that can protect against septic embolism include:

  • Maintaining good dental health
  • Avoiding skin infections
  • Avoiding body piercings, which can become infected
  • Avoiding tattoos, which can become infected
  • Prompt medical attention for skin infections
  • Preventive antibiotics before medical or dental procedures

A Word From Verywell

If you have been diagnosed with an unusual condition such as septic embolism, you might not know where to turn. Use these tips to get the most out of your healthcare provider visits so that you can become an empowered patient as you recover.

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6 Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Zakhari N, Castillo M, Torres C. Unusual cerebral emboli. Neuroimaging Clin N Am. 2016;26(1):147-163. doi:10.1016/j.nic.2015.09.013