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What You Need to Know About Sepsis

This severe infection, often known as blood poisoning, can turn deadly fast

Kerri Mohar's job as a flight attendant often took her to glamorous destinations around the world. But in 2008, one trip turned out to be memorable for all the wrong reasons. During a two-day Barcelona layover, Kerri and her then-boyfriend, Rob, a pilot, were on a romantic sightseeing excursion when Kerri developed "the urinary tract infection [UTI] from hell."

Since Kerri was in a foreign country over a New Year's holiday, finding medical treatment was a challenge. She decided to just push through it. "I didn't want to miss anything or spoil the trip for Rob," she recently recalled to me.

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By the time Kerri, now 52, made it back to the U.S., though, the pain had gotten so bad that her daughter rushed her to the emergency room. That's when she found out her UTI had caused a potentially deadly reaction called sepsis. "The doctor who diagnosed me said that if I had waited another 24 hours, there would have been nothing they could have done for me," she said.

The science (and symptoms) of sepsis

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that arises when the body's response to infection causes system-wide inflammation, injuring tissues and organs. It's sometimes called blood poisoning, and a number of cases occur as a result of seemingly benign incidents — like a scrape on the playground or even a large paper cut.

In other cases, like Kerri's, sepsis can start out as a garden-variety infection but quickly turn into something more serious. Frighteningly, the number of people hospitalized for sepsis has more than doubled in the past decade, partly due to increasing antibiotic resistance as well as an aging population.

"Every week I have to tell three or four families that their loved ones are dying from something most of them have never heard of," says intensive care physician Jim O'Brien, M.D., of Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Sepsis strikes seemingly at random, and sometimes is missed even by seasoned physicians. "We don't have a diagnostic test for sepsis. And doctors have not organized our care around sepsis like we have around heart attack or stroke."

While the symptoms of sepsis vary depending on where the infection starts, doctors often look for patients who seem confused or disoriented. Other symptoms include fever, chills, low body temperature, low blood pressure, rapid pulse, decreased urination, nausea and vomiting.

Sepsis can be fatal, so nearly all severe cases require antibiotic treatment in an intensive care unit for several days or weeks.

So what can you do to protect yourself from sepsis?

1. Make sure you're up-to-date on all appropriate immunizations: Influenza and pneumonia are common precursors to sepsis, and they're highly preventable.

2. Wash your hands regularly: And if you are in the hospital, make sure all health providers wash their hands.

3. Don't take antibiotics for common ailments like colds: Improper antibiotic use creates drug-resistant bacteria that make sepsis dangerous.

Kerri's story has a happy ending: After five days in the hospital, she eventually recovered, and she and Rob got married last September. "The scary thing is how fast you can deteriorate. You can go from thinking you're OK, to a doctor admitting you to the ICU," she says. "The signs were there; I just didn't realize how sick I really was."

Nancy L. Snyderman, M.D., is a head and neck surgeon, and chief medical editor for NBC News. She has written four books, including Dr. Nancy Snyderman’s Guide to Good Health for Women Over Forty.

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