What is Severe Sepsis?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Severe sepsis is a medical crisis where a patient's entire body experiences inflammation in response to an underlying infection. The term “severe sepsis” is a bit misleading, as it suggests there are less dangerous forms of this condition when in fact all stages of sepsis are dangerous. In the case of patients with severe sepsis, the inflammation is reaching a crisis point and there is a risk that the patient will fall into septic shock as the body becomes overloaded by the inflammatory processes occurring in multiple locations.

A dish of klebsiella oxytoca bacteria, which can cause sepsis.
A dish of klebsiella oxytoca bacteria, which can cause sepsis.

In sepsis, inflammation is not isolated to one area of the body, but occurs across the body. Patients typically develop a high fever and may experience pain, soreness, and myriad symptoms as a cascading series of reactions occurs. Inflammation stresses internal organs like the liver and kidneys, and can damage the heart, lungs, and brain. Often, the stress creates a spike in blood sugar levels, known as hyperglycemia, putting additional strain on the body, and blood pressure tends to rise as well.

Severe sepsis can damage a body's internal organs.
Severe sepsis can damage a body's internal organs.

A patient in severe sepsis is considered in critical condition as a result of the damage caused by the inflammation. The patient may not be able to breathe independently and could have a medical problem like increased pressure inside the skull caused by swelling. Treatment of severe sepsis is complex, as the patient's failing organs must be addressed individually while also not losing track of the larger whole. The patient may require dialysis to take over for overloaded kidneys along with high doses of antibiotics to manage infection, surgery, and other treatment measures. Sometimes, insulin is used to bring blood sugar levels down.

A patient with severe sepsis will have to undergo dialysis to take over for overloaded kidneys.
A patient with severe sepsis will have to undergo dialysis to take over for overloaded kidneys.

Untreated, severe sepsis can proceed to septic shock, coma, and death. Treatment of patients with sepsis is aimed at preventing the crisis point represented by severe sepsis by providing patients with aggressive treatment and supportive care to head off problems like organ failure before they happen. Medical personnel are trained to act quickly in cases of suspected sepsis to provide the appropriate interventions and keep the patient as stable as possible.

Even with very high quality medical care in an advanced facility, sepsis can kill. Patients who were ill or weak before the inflammation occurred may not be able to pull through, and otherwise healthy people can experience severe complications, eventually leading to death, as a result of aggressive and unstoppable inflammation. When sepsis proceeds to the severe point, it is an indicator that the patient is in serious danger.

Neonatal sepsis is caused by an infection of the blood of infants younger than 90 days.
Neonatal sepsis is caused by an infection of the blood of infants younger than 90 days.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Seeing a loved one suffer from sepsis can be traumatic. My mother had this when I was a teenager, and my little sister freaked out when she saw her in the hospital.

She had gone in because she had a very high fever, and while she was there, her condition worsened. Her entire body began to swell, and she looked so bloated when we saw her that she didn't even look like my mother.

My sister cried and screamed for at least an hour afterward. The nurse rushed her out as soon as she began screaming, because anything that could cause my mother's blood pressure to rise in her condition could be fatal.


@orangey03 – My aunt had an advanced case of sepsis, yet she survived. The sepsis treatment involved surgery, so I'm sure that helped more than drugs could.

The doctor had to physically cut out her infected tissue to eliminate the infection. She was very near death when he did the operation, and it is a miracle that she survived.

I'm sure that your cousin's doctor must feel that antibiotics will work. He probably wouldn't hesitate to operate if she were on the verge of death or if there was a chance her condition could worsen while she is taking the drugs.


Has anyone here ever been treated for sepsis? My young cousin is suffering from it now, and so far, all the doctor has done is give her intravenous antibiotics.

Hopefully, that will work, but if it doesn't, I'd like to know what might have to happen. Her mother has been hysterical and afraid that she might die.

I almost wish that they would attempt the most extreme treatment first. If the antibiotics fail, I'm afraid it might be too late to try something stronger.


My mother-in-law nearly died from sepsis. She had been recovering well from her gastric bypass surgery when she suddenly developed an internal infection.

It seemed that some of her stitches had ripped loose, and an infection had set in. She was so ill that she had to remain hospitalized for two months.

The doctor wasn't even sure she would pull through. He went so far as to call the family in, and they were terrified. She had to stay in a sterile environment, and any visitors had to wear scrubs.

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