For the genus of flies of this name, see Sepsis (genus).
Blood culture bottles: orange label for anaerobes, green label for aerobes, and yellow label for blood samples from children
Pronunciation /ˈsɛpss/
Classification and external resources
Specialty Infectious disease
ICD-10 A40A41
ICD-9-CM 995.91
DiseasesDB 11960
MedlinePlus 000666
Patient UK Sepsis
MeSH D018805

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that arises when the body's response to infection injures its own tissues and organs.[1] Common signs and symptoms include fever, increased heart rate, increased breathing rate, and confusion.[2] There may also be symptoms related to a specific infection, such as a cough with pneumonia, or painful urination with a kidney infection. In the very young, old, and people with a weakened immune system, there may be no symptoms of a specific infection and the body temperature may be low or normal rather than high.[3] Severe sepsis is sepsis causing poor organ function or insufficient blood flow. Insufficient blood flow may be evident by low blood pressure, high blood lactate, or low urine output. Septic shock is low blood pressure due to sepsis that does not improve after reasonable amounts of intravenous fluids are given.[4]

Sepsis is caused by an immune response triggered by an infection.[3][5] The infection is most commonly bacterial, but it can be from fungi, viruses, or parasites.[3] Common locations for the primary infection include lungs, brain, urinary tract, skin, and abdominal organs. Risk factors include young or old age, a weakened immune system from conditions such as cancer or diabetes, and major trauma or burns.[2] Diagnosis was based on meeting at least two systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS) criteria due to a presumed infection.[3] In 2016 screening by SIRS was replaced with qSOFA which is two of the following three: increased breathing rate, change in level of consciousness, and low blood pressure.[6] Blood cultures are recommended preferably before antibiotics are started; however, infection of the blood is not required for the diagnosis.[3] Medical imaging should be done to look for the possible location of infection.[4] Other potential causes of similar signs and symptoms include anaphylaxis, adrenal insufficiency, low blood volume, heart failure, and pulmonary embolism among others.[3]

Sepsis is usually treated with intravenous fluids and antibiotics. Antibiotics are typically given as soon as possible. This is often done in an intensive care unit. If fluid replacement is not enough to maintain blood pressure, medications that raise blood pressure can be used. Mechanical ventilation and dialysis may be needed to support the function of the lungs and kidneys, respectively.[2] To guide treatment, a central venous catheter and an arterial catheter may be placed for access to the bloodstream. Other measurements such as cardiac output and superior vena cava oxygen saturation may be used. People with sepsis need preventive measures for deep vein thrombosis, stress ulcers and pressure ulcers, unless other conditions prevent such interventions. Some might benefit from tight control of blood sugar levels with insulin.[4] The use of corticosteroids is controversial.[7] Activated drotrecogin alfa, originally marketed for severe sepsis, has not been found to be helpful and was withdrawn from sale in 2011.[8]

Disease severity partly determines the outcome with the risk of death from sepsis being as high as 30%, severe sepsis as high as 50%, and septic shock as high as 80%.[9] The number of cases worldwide is unknown as there is little data from the developing world.[9] Estimates suggest sepsis affects millions of people a year.[4] In the developed world about 0.2 to 3 per 1000 people get sepsis yearly or about a million cases per year in the United States.[9][10] Rates of disease have been increasing.[4] Sepsis is more common among males than females.[3] The condition has been described at least since the time of Hippocrates.[11] The terms septicemia and blood poisoning referred to the microorganisms or their toxins in the blood and are no longer commonly used.[12][11]

Signs and symptoms

In addition to symptoms related to the provoking cause, sepsis is frequently associated with either fever or low body temperature, rapid breathing, elevated heart rate, confusion, and edema.[13] Early signs are a fast heart rate, decreased urination, and high blood sugar. Signs of established sepsis include confusion, metabolic acidosis (which may be accompanied by faster breathing leading to a respiratory alkalosis), low blood pressure due to decreased systemic vascular resistance, higher cardiac output, and dysfunctions of blood coagulation (where clotting can lead to organ failure).[14]

The drop in blood pressure seen in sepsis may lead to shock. This may result in light-headedness. Bruising or intense bleeding may occur.[15]


The most common primary sources of infection resulting in sepsis are the lungs, the abdomen, and the urinary tract.[16] Typically, 50% of all sepsis cases start as an infection in the lungs. No definitive source is found in one third to one half of cases.[16]

Infections leading to sepsis are usually bacterial but can be fungal or viral.[16] While gram-negative bacteria were previously the most common cause of sepsis, in the last decade gram-positive bacteria, most commonly staphylococci, are thought to cause more than 50% of cases of sepsis.[17] Other commonly implicated bacteria include Streptococcus pyogenes, Escherichia coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Klebsiella species.[18] Fungal sepsis accounts for approximately 5% of severe sepsis and septic shock cases; the most common cause of fungal sepsis is infection by Candida species of yeast.[19]


Early diagnosis is necessary to properly manage sepsis, as initiation of early goal directed therapy is key to reducing mortality from severe sepsis.[4]

Within the first three hours of suspected sepsis, diagnostic studies should include WBCs, measuring serum lactate and obtaining appropriate cultures before starting antibiotics, so long as this does not delay their use by more than 45 minutes.[4] To identify the causative organism(s), at least two sets of blood cultures using bottles with media for aerobic and anaerobic organisms should be obtained, with at least one drawn through the skin and one drawn through each vascular access device (such as an IV catheter) in place more than 48 hours.[4] However, bacteria are present in the blood in only about 30% of cases.[20] Another possible method of detection is by polymerase chain reaction. If other sources of infection are suspected, cultures of these sources, such as urine, cerebrospinal fluid, wounds, or respiratory secretions, should also be obtained, as long as this does not delay the use of antibiotics.[4]

Within six hours, if blood pressure remains low despite initial fluid resuscitation of 30 ml/kg, or if initial lactate is ≥ 4 mmol/L (36 mg/dL), central venous pressure and central venous oxygen saturation should be measured.[4] Lactate should be re-measured if the initial lactate was elevated.[4] Within twelve hours, it is essential to diagnose or exclude any source of infection that would require emergent source control, such as necrotizing soft tissue infection, infection causing inflammation of the abdominal cavity lining, infection of the bile duct, or intestinal infarction.[4] A pierced internal organ (free air on abdominal x-ray or CT scan); an abnormal chest x-ray consistent with pneumonia (with focal opacification); or petechiae, purpura, or purpura fulminans can be evident of infection.

If the SIRS criteria are negative it is very unlikely the person has sepsis; if they are positive there is just a moderate probability that the person has sepsis.[12]


Systemic inflammatory response syndrome[21]
Finding Value
Temperature <36 °C (96.8 °F) or >38 °C (100.4 °F)
Heart rate >90/min
Respiratory rate >20/min or PaCO2<32 mmHg (4.3 kPa)
WBC <4x109/L (<4000/mm³), >12x109/L (>12,000/mm³), or 10% bands
Sepsis Steps. Training tool for teaching the progression of sepsis stages.

There are different levels of sepsis: sepsis, severe sepsis, and septic shock.[12] In 2016 screening by systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS) was replaced with qSOFA which is two of the following three: increased breathing rate, change in level of consciousness, and low blood pressure.[6]

End-organ dysfunction

Examples of end-organ dysfunction include the following:[23]

More specific definitions of end-organ dysfunction exist for SIRS in pediatrics.[26]

Consensus definitions, however, continue to evolve, with the latest expanding the list of signs and symptoms of sepsis to reflect clinical bedside experience.[13]


A 2013 review concluded moderate-quality evidence exists to support use of the procalcitonin level as a method to distinguish sepsis from non-infectious causes of SIRS.[20] The same review found the test's sensitivity to be 77% and the specificity to be 79%. The authors suggested procalcitonin may serve as a helpful diagnostic marker for sepsis, but cautioned that its level alone cannot definitively make the diagnosis.[20] A 2012 systematic review found that soluble urokinase-type plasminogen activator receptor (SuPAR) is a nonspecific marker of inflammation and does not accurately diagnose sepsis.[27] However, this same review concluded that SuPAR has prognostic value as higher SuPAR levels are associated with an increased rate of death in those with sepsis.[27]

Differential diagnosis

The differential diagnosis for sepsis is broad and has to look at (to exclude) the noninfectious conditions that can cause the systemic signs of SIRS: alcohol withdrawal, acute pancreatitis, burns, pulmonary embolus, thyrotoxicosis, anaphylaxis, adrenal insufficiency, and neurogenic shock.[14][28]

Neonatal sepsis

In common clinical usage, neonatal sepsis refers to a bacterial blood stream infection in the first month of life, such as meningitis, pneumonia, pyelonephritis, or gastroenteritis,[29] but neonatal sepsis can also be due to infection with fungi, viruses, or parasites.[29] Criteria with regard to hemodynamic compromise or respiratory failure are not useful because they present too late for intervention.


Sepsis is caused by a combination of factors related to the particular invading pathogen(s) and to the status of the host's immune system.[30] The early phase of sepsis characterized by excessive inflammation (which can sometimes result in a cytokine storm) can be followed by a prolonged period of decreased functioning of the immune system.[31] Either of these phases can prove fatal.

Microbial factors

Bacterial virulence factors such as glycocalyx and various adhesins allow colonization, immune evasion, and establishment of disease in the host.[30] Sepsis caused by gram-negative bacteria is thought to be largely due to the host's response to the lipid A component of lipopolysaccharide, also called endotoxin.[32][33] Sepsis caused by gram-positive bacteria can result from an immunological response to cell wall lipoteichoic acid.[34] Bacterial exotoxins that act as superantigens can also cause sepsis.[30] Superantigens simultaneously bind major histocompatibility complex and T-cell receptors in the absence of antigen presentation. This forced receptor interaction induces the production of pro-inflammatory chemical signals (cytokines) by T-cells.[30]

There are a number of microbial factors which can cause the typical septic inflammatory cascade. An invading pathogen is recognized by its pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs). Examples of PAMPs include lipopolysaccharides and flagellin in gram-negative bacteria, muramyl dipeptide in the peptidoglycan of the gram-positive bacterial cell wall, and CpG bacterial DNA. These PAMPs are recognized by the innate immune system's pattern recognition receptors (PRRs), which can be membrane-bound or cytosolic.[35] There are four families of PRRs: the toll-like receptors, the C-type lectin receptors, the NOD-like receptors and the RIG-I-like receptors. The association of a PAMP and a PRR will invariably cause a series of intracellular signalling cascades. Consequentially, transcription factors like nuclear factor-kappa B and activator protein-1 will up-regulate the expression of pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines.[36]

Host factors

Cytokines such as tumor necrosis factor, interleukin 1, and interleukin 6 can activate procoagulation factors in the cells lining blood vessels, leading to endothelial damage. The damaged endothelial surface inhibits anticoagulant properties as well as increases antifibrinolysis, which can lead to intravascular clotting, the formation of blood clots in small blood vessels, and multiple organ failure.[37]

A systemic inflammatory response syndrome can also occur in patients without the presence of infection, for example in those with burns, polytrauma, or the initial state in pancreatitis and chemical pneumonitis.[12] The low blood pressure seen in those with sepsis is the result of various processes including excessive production of chemicals that dilate blood vessels such as nitric oxide, a deficiency of chemicals that constrict blood vessels such as vasopressin, and activation of ATP-sensitive potassium channels.[38] In those with severe sepsis and septic shock, this sequence of events leads to a type of circulatory shock known as distributive shock.[39]


Early recognition and focused management can improve the outcomes in sepsis. Current professional recommendations include a number of actions ("bundles") to be taken as soon as possible after diagnosis. Within the first three hours someone with sepsis should have received antibiotics, and intravenous fluids if there is evidence of either low blood pressure or other evidence for inadequate blood supply to organs (as evidenced by a raised level of lactate); blood cultures should also be obtained within this time period. After six hours the blood pressure should be adequate, close monitoring of blood pressure and blood supply to organs should be in place, and the lactate should be measured again if it was initially raised.[4] A related bundle, the "Sepsis Six", is in widespread use in the United Kingdom; this requires the administration of antibiotics within an hour of recognition, blood cultures, lactate and hemoglobin determination, urine output monitoring, high-flow oxygen, and intravenous fluids.[40][41]

Apart from the timely administration of fluids and antibiotics, the management of sepsis also involves surgical drainage of infected fluid collections, and appropriate support for organ dysfunction. This may include hemodialysis in kidney failure, mechanical ventilation in lung dysfunction, transfusion of blood products, and drug and fluid therapy for circulatory failure. Ensuring adequate nutrition—preferably by enteral feeding, but if necessary by parenteral nutrition—is important during prolonged illness.[4] In those with high blood sugar levels, insulin to bring it down to 7.8-10 mmol/L (140–180 mg/dL) is recommended with lower levels potentially worsening outcomes.[42] Medication to prevent deep vein thrombosis and gastric ulcers may also be used.[4]


In severe sepsis and septic shock, broad-spectrum antibiotics (usually two or a β-lactam antibiotic with broad coverage) are recommended.[4][39] Some recommend they be given within 1 hour of making the diagnosis stating that for every hour delay in the administration of antibiotics, there is an associated 6% rise in mortality.[22][39] Others did not find a benefit with early administration.[43] Two sets of blood cultures should be obtained before starting antibiotics if this can be done without delaying the administration of antibiotics.[44]

Several factors determine the most appropriate choice for the initial antibiotic regimen. These factors include local patterns of bacterial sensitivity to antibiotics, whether the infection is thought to be a hospital or community-acquired infection, and which organ systems are thought to be infected.[39] Antibiotic regimens should be reassessed daily and narrowed if appropriate.[4] Treatment duration is typically 7–10 days with the type of antibiotic used directed by the results of cultures.[45] Giving antibiotics continuously may be better than giving them intermittently.[46]

Intravenous fluids

Intravenous fluids are titrated (measured and adjusted) in response to heart rate, blood pressure, and urine output; restoring large fluid deficits can require 6 to 10 liters of crystalloids in adults.[30] In children an initial amount of 20mL/Kg is reasonable in shock.[47] In cases of severe sepsis and septic shock where a central venous catheter is used to measure blood pressures dynamically, fluids should be administered until the central venous pressure (CVP) reaches 8–12mmHg.[38] Once these goals are met, the central venous oxygen saturation (ScvO2), i.e., the oxygen saturation of venous blood as it returns to the heart as measured at the vena cava, is optimized. If the ScvO2 is less than 70%, blood may be given to reach a hemoglobin of 10 g/dL and then inotropes are added until the ScvO2 is optimized.[30] In those with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and sufficient tissue blood fluid, more fluids should be given carefully.[4]

Crystalloid solutions are recommended initially.[4] Crystalloid solutions and albumin are better than other fluids (such as hydroxyethyl starch) in terms of risk of death.[48] Starches also carry an increased risk of acute kidney injury,[49][50] and need for blood transfusion.[51][52] Various colloid solutions (such as modified gelatin) carry no advantage over crystalloid.[49] Albumin also appears to be of no benefit over crystalloids.[53] Packed red blood cells are recommended to keep the hemoglobin levels between 70 and 90 g/L.[4] A 2014 trial; however, found no difference between a target hemoglobin of 70 or 90 g/L.[54]


If the person has been sufficiently fluid resuscitated but the mean arterial pressure is not greater than 65 mmHg, vasopressors are recommended. Norepinephrine (noradrenaline) is recommended as the initial choice. If a single vasopressor is not enough to raise the blood pressure, epinephrine (adrenaline) or vasopressin may be added. Dopamine is typically not recommended. Dobutamine may be used if heart function is poor or blood flow is insufficient despite sufficient fluid volumes and blood pressure.[4]


Etomidate is often not recommended as a medication to help with intubation in this situation due to concerns it may lead to poor adrenal function and an increased risk of death.[55][56] The small amount of evidence there is, however, has not found a change in the risk of death with etomidate.[57]

It is recommended that the head of the bed be raised if possible to improve ventilation.[4] Paralytic agents should be avoided unless ARDS is suspected.[4]


The use of steroids in sepsis is controversial.[7] Studies do not give a clear picture as to whether and when glucocorticoids should be used.[58] The 2012 Surviving Sepsis Campaign recommends against their use in those with septic shock if intravenous fluids and vasopressors stabilize the person's cardiovascular function.[4] While a 2015 Cochrane review found low quality evidence of benefit.[59]

During critical illness, a state of adrenal insufficiency and tissue resistance to corticosteroids may occur. This has been termed critical illness–related corticosteroid insufficiency.[60] Treatment with corticosteroids might be most beneficial in those with septic shock and early severe ARDS, whereas its role in others such as those with pancreatitis or severe pneumonia is unclear.[60] However, the exact way of determining corticosteroid insufficiency remains problematic. It should be suspected in those poorly responding to resuscitation with fluids and vasopressors. ACTH stimulation testing is not recommended to confirm the diagnosis.[60] The method of stopping glucocorticoid drugs is variable, and it is unclear whether they should be slowly decreased or simply abruptly stopped.

Early goal directed therapy

Early goal directed therapy (EGDT) is an approach to the management of severe sepsis during the initial 6 hours after diagnosis.[45] It is a step-wise approach, with the physiologic goal of optimizing cardiac preload, afterload, and contractility.[61] It includes giving early antibiotics.[61] It involves monitoring of hemodynamic parameters and specific interventions to achieve key resuscitation targets which include maintaining a central venous pressure between 8-12 mmHg, a mean arterial pressure of between 65-90 mmHg, a central venous oxygen saturation (ScvO2) greater than 70% and a urine output of greater than 0.5 ml/kg/hour. The goal is to optimize oxygen delivery to tissues and achieve a balance between systemic oxygen delivery and demand.[61] An appropriate decrease in serum lactate may be equivalent to ScvO2 and easier to obtain.[62]

In the original trial, early goal directed therapy was found to reduce mortality from 46.5% to 30.5% in those with sepsis,[61] and the Surviving Sepsis Campaign has been recommending its use.[4] However, three more recent large randomized control trials (ProCESS, ARISE, and ProMISe), did not demonstrate a 90-day mortality benefit of early goal directed therapy versus the standard therapy in severe sepsis.[63] It is likely that some parts of EGDT are more important than others.[63] Following these trials the use of EGDT is still considered reasonable.[64]


Neonatal sepsis can be difficult to diagnose as newborns may be asymptomatic.[65] If a newborn shows signs and symptoms suggestive of sepsis, antibiotics are immediately started and are either changed to target a specific organism identified by diagnostic testing or discontinued after an infectious cause for the symptoms has been ruled out.[66]


Monoclonal and polyclonal preparations of intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) do not lower the rate of death in newborns and adults with sepsis.[67] Evidence for the use of IgM-enriched polyclonal preparations of IVIG is inconsistent.[67] A 2012 Cochrane review concluded that N-acetylcysteine does not reduce mortality in those with SIRS or sepsis and may even be harmful.[68]

Recombinant activated protein C (drotrecogin alpha) was originally introduced for severe sepsis (as identified by a high APACHE II score), where it was thought to confer a survival benefit.[45] However, subsequent studies showed that it increased adverse events—bleeding risk in particular—and did not decrease mortality.[8] It was removed from sale in 2011.[8] Another medication known as eritoran also has not shown benefit.[69]


Approximately 20–35% of people with severe sepsis and 30–70% of people with septic shock die.[70] Lactate is a useful method of determining prognosis with those who have a level greater than 4 mmol/L having a mortality of 40% and those with a level of less than 2 mmol/L have a mortality of less than 15%.[22]

There are a number of prognostic stratification systems such as APACHE II and Mortality in Emergency Department Sepsis. APACHE II factors in the person's age, underlying condition, and various physiologic variables to yield estimates of the risk of dying of severe sepsis. Of the individual covariates, the severity of underlying disease most strongly influences the risk of death. Septic shock is also a strong predictor of short- and long-term mortality. Case-fatality rates are similar for culture-positive and culture-negative severe sepsis. The Mortality in Emergency Department Sepsis (MEDS) score is simpler and useful in the emergency department environment.[71]

Some people may experience severe long-term cognitive decline following an episode of severe sepsis, but the absence of baseline neuropsychological data in most sepsis patients makes the incidence of this difficult to quantify or to study.[72]


Sepsis causes millions of deaths globally each year and is the most common cause of death in people who have been hospitalized.[5][45] The worldwide incidence of sepsis is estimated to be 18 million cases per year.[73] In the United States sepsis affects approximately 3 in 1,000 people,[22] and severe sepsis contributes to more than 200,000 deaths per year.[74]

Sepsis occurs in 1-2% of all hospitalizations and accounts for as much as 25% of ICU bed utilization. Due to it rarely being reported as a primary diagnosis (often being a complication of cancer or other illness), the incidence, mortality, and morbidity rates of sepsis are likely underestimated.[30] A study by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) of selected States found that there were approximately 651 hospital stays per 100,000 population with a sepsis diagnosis in 2010.[75] It is the second-leading cause of death in non-coronary intensive care unit (ICU) patients and the tenth-most-common cause of death overall (the first being heart disease).[76] Children under 12 months of age and elderly people have the highest incidence of severe sepsis.[30] Among U.S. patients who had multiple sepsis hospital admissions in 2010, those who were discharged to a skilled nursing facility or long term care following the initial hospitalization were more likely to be readmitted than those discharged to another form of care.[75] A study of 18 U.S. States found that, amongst Medicare patients in 2011, septicemia was the second most common principal reason for readmission within 30 days.[77]

Several medical conditions increase a person's susceptibility to infection and developing sepsis. Common sepsis risk factors include age (especially the very young and old); conditions that weaken the immune system such as cancer, diabetes, or the absence of a spleen; and major trauma and burns.[2][78][79]


Personification of septicaemia, carrying a spray can marked 'Poison'.

The term "σήψις"[80] (sepsis) was introduced by Hippocrates in the fourth century BC, and it meant the process of decay or decomposition of organic matter.[81] In the eleventh century, Avicenna used the term "blood rot" for diseases linked to severe purulent process. Though severe systemic toxicity had already been observed, it was only in the 19th century that the specific term – sepsis – was used for this condition.

The terms septicemia, also spelled septicaemia, and blood poisoning referred to the microorganisms or their toxins in the blood and are no longer commonly used.[12][11]

By the end of the 19th century, it was widely believed that microbes produced substances that could injure the mammalian host and that soluble toxins released during infection caused the fever and shock that were commonplace during severe infections. Pfeiffer coined the term endotoxin at the beginning of the 20th century to denote the pyrogenic principle associated with Vibrio cholerae. It was soon realised that endotoxins were expressed by most and perhaps all gram-negative bacteria. The lipopolysaccharide character of enteric endotoxins was elucidated in 1944 by Shear.[82] The molecular character of this material was determined by Luderitz et al. in 1973.[83]

It was discovered in 1965 that a strain of C3H/HeJ mice were immune to the endotoxin-induced shock.[84] The genetic locus for this effect was dubbed Lps. These mice were also found to be hypersusceptible to infection by gram-negative bacteria.[85] These observations were finally linked in 1998 by the discovery of the toll-like receptor gene 4 (TLR 4).[86] Genetic mapping work, performed over a period of five years, showed that TLR4 was the sole candidate locus within the Lps critical region; this strongly implied that a mutation within TLR4 must account for the lipopolysaccharide resistance phenotype. The defect in the TLR4 gene that led to the endotoxin resistant phenotype was discovered to be due to a mutation in the cytoplasm.[87]

Society and culture


Sepsis was the most expensive condition treated in U.S. hospital stays in 2011, at an aggregate cost of $20.3 billion for nearly 1.1 million hospitalizations.[88] Costs for sepsis hospital stays more than quadrupled since 1997 with an 11.5 percent annual increase.[89] By payer, it was the most costly condition billed to Medicare, the second-most costly billed to Medicaid and the uninsured, and the fourth-most costly billed to private insurance.[88]


A large international collaboration entitled the "Surviving Sepsis Campaign" was established in 2002[90] to educate people about sepsis and to improve patient outcomes with sepsis. The Campaign has published an evidence-based review of management strategies for severe sepsis, with the aim to publish a complete set of guidelines in subsequent years.[45]

Sepsis Alliance is a charitable organization run by a team of dedicated laypeople and healthcare professionals who share a strong commitment to battling sepsis. The organization was created to raise sepsis awareness among both the general public and healthcare professionals.[91]


  1. The term "ALI" appears to have fallen out of favor, based on the "Berlin definition"[24][25]


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