What is Sepsis? How is it Diagnosed?

Sepsis - the body's ultimate response to a bacterial infection -- is characterized by severe reaction of the body's organs to the foreign bacteria and/or death. Sepsis is also referred to as systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS).  Although sepsis often results from the widespread invasion of bacteria into a patient's bloodstream, this invasion is not essential for the development of severe sepsis since local infection/inflammation can also cause distant organ dysfunction and blood pressure irregularities.  Some of the common places in the body where an infection might start include the skin (celluitis), the lungs (bacterial pneumonia), liver, gall bladder, lining of the brain (meningitis), the bloodstream, the bones, the bowel, or the kidneys.  For hospitalized patients, common sources of infections include bedsores (decubitus ulcers), surgical drains, intravenous lines, or surgical wounds.  Unfortunately, bacteria live and breed in hospitalized settings, and thus, many healthy people who have suffered an injury requiring a drain, or IV lines or open ports into their blood stream often contract an infection that turns into sepsis. 

Many studies indicate that to make a diagnosis of the clinical syndrome sepsis, at least two of the following four symptoms must be present: (1) elevated white blood cell count; (2) elevated pulse; (3) elevated breathing rate; and (4) temperature above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Other symptoms that are commonly associated with sepsis include shaking/chills; vomiting; diffuse body pain; and abnormal behavior/neurological abnormalities. A change in mental status and elevated breathing rate may be among the earliest signs of sepsis.  Bruising and bleeding are also common signs of sepsis. 

Although blood cultures can, in some instances, be utilized to confirm the presence of sepsis, these cultures also produce a high incidence of false negatives. In fact, studies show that blood cultures yield bacteria in only 20-40 percent of the cases in which a patient has severe sepsis and in only 40-70 percent of instances in which a patient is suffering from septic shock, the precursor to death. Put more simply, even where it is the judgment of the physician that a person has died of sepsis, in many cases, there is an absence of positive blood cultures supporting that conclusion. Finally, these same studies show that in many cases of sepsis, a patient may not exhibit any outward clinical signs or symptoms of being sick or have positive blood cultures.  Some of the common tests that should be run to check for sepsis include blood differential tests, blood gases tests, kidney function tests, platelet counts and white blood cell counts. 

For patients diagnosed with sepsis, they are often admitted into the hospital's intensive care unit and given IV antibiotics.  Medications to increase the patient's blood pressure and dialysis if there is kidney failure are also given.  Oxygen can be given if the patient's lungs are affected. 

If you believe that a friend or loved one has died as a result of a misdiagnosed case of sepsis, call the lawyers at STSW at 410-385-2225 for a free consultation or visit our website to set up your free consultation.