Symptoms of Sepsis in the Elderly

This dangerous condition requires immediate medical attention

Woman caressing ill man in hospital ward
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Sepsis is a serious systemic response to an infection. Basically, the entire body is experiencing an inflammation response.

"Blood poisoning" or "septicemia" are terms that are also used by some to refer to sepsis, although they really mean that is an infection in the bloodstream, while "sepsis" describes the response to that infection.

Sepsis is an extremely dangerous condition, requiring urgent medical attention.

Each year, about 90,000 people in the US die from septic shock. Elderly people account for 65 percent of sepsis cases –- people over 65 are 13 times more likely to have sepsis than younger people.

What Are the Symptoms of Sepsis?

The first clue that someone might have sepsis is if they have a known or suspected infection. If the infection is present (even if it is being treated) and the following symptoms occur, it is time to take action and see a doctor immediately.

If you are at home, the following symptoms are easily measured.

According to diagnostic criteria, person needs to have at least two of the following symptoms for sepsis to be strongly suspected. However, in elderly people, the presence of one of these symptoms warrants a call to the doctor:

  • Tachycardia: This means the heart is beating faster than normal. A heart rate over 90 beats per minute is considered "tachycardia" in the elderly. To measure heart rate, have the person sit still for a couple of minutes before starting to count beats, using a stopwatch or watch with a second hand.
  • Abnormal Body Temperature: This means that the person either has a fever (above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit) or low body temperature, called "hypothermia" (lower than 96.8 degrees Fahrenheit).
  • Rapid Breathing: This is defined as more than 20 breaths per minute while the person is sitting still.

In addition to the above symptoms, a healthcare provider will also suspect sepsis if they find that the patient has:

Additional Symptoms

The above symptoms guide the doctors when trying to determine if the person has sepsis. However, depending on what caused the infection and how long it has progressed, the following symptoms can also be present:

  • Weakness
  • Chills, which may even cause shaking
  • Confusion
  • A blue, mottled or "dusky" color to the skin

Septic Shock

If sepsis has become worse, the person may develop "septic shock," which is defined as low blood pressure that does not respond to treatment.

Bottom Line

Sepsis is a very serious condition. Elderly people, especially those with other health problems, are at additional risk for harmful complications of sepsis.

Again, if any of the symptoms listed are present and the person also has an infection, see a doctor right away. The faster that the person with sepsis is treated, the better the chances are for recovery.

1 Source
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  1. Gyawali B, Ramakrishna K, Dhamoon AS. Sepsis: The evolution in definition, pathophysiology, and management. SAGE Open Med. 2019;7. doi:10.1177/2050312119835043

Additional Reading

By Mark Stibich, PhD
Mark Stibich, PhD, FIDSA, is a behavior change expert with experience helping individuals make lasting lifestyle improvements.