All About Sepsis

What is sepsis?

The earliest references to sepsis are found in documents from Ancient Greece, and the word stems from the Greek word “sepo,” which refers to rot. Hippocrates himself mentioned sepsis as early as 400 BCE. But the exact cause of sepsis wasn’t discovered until the late 19th century, when Louis Pasteur, best known as the father of pasteurization, found bacteria in the blood of patients experiencing severe infections following childbirth — a form of sepsis called puerperal septicemia.

Sepsis occurs when the body has an extreme, life-threatening response to an infection. The infection includes bacteria that enter the blood stream, triggering a chain reaction during which the patient’s immune system response damages its own tissues — through inflammation, swelling of the tissues, blood clotting and bleeding, and energy failure — potentially leading to organ failure and death. Most sepsis cases are caused by bacterial infections, but viral, fungal, or parasitic infections can also lead to sepsis.

Signs of sepsis

  • Fever or low body temperature
  • Chills and sweating
  • Confusion or sleepiness
  • Shortness of breath
  • High heart rate
  • Reduced urination

“The issue with sepsis right now is a lot of the treatments we use are supportive — meaning we might give the patient fluids because we need to keep their blood pressure high. But what we’re trying to do in my lab, and Dr. Lauralyn McIntyre’s group, is come up with some novel therapies to help the body heal itself when it has a condition like sepsis.”

– Dr. Manoj Lalu

How is sepsis treated?

Sepsis treatment involves keeping blood pressure normal through the use of large amounts of intravenous fluids to support the pressure and the use of antibiotics and removal of pus pockets to treat the infection. Generally, broad spectrum antibiotics are used first, with more targeted medication used if a more specific organism is identified. Sepsis causes several organs to fail. In the ICU, we often need to put patients on the mechanical ventilator due to lung failure, induce a coma with medications to sedate and treat pain, use the dialysis machine to remove toxins to kidney failure, and use intravenous medication infusions to support the blood pressure when the patient is in shock.

How to avoid sepsis

What is the difference between sepsis and septic shock?

When a pathogen enters the blood stream of the patient, it has the potential to induce a more severe infection called sepsis.


Sepsis is characterized by the body’s response to an infection, which could include any number of organ failures — such as failure of the brain, heart and lungs, gut, or kidneys. Sepsis can also affect the blood by causing too much clotting and potentially bleeding.

Septic shock

Septic shock is the final and most serious stage of sepsis, in which the body’s response to the infection includes damage to organs as well as severely low blood pressure, or shock — leading to death in 20–40% of patients and upwards from that in the most severely ill.

Dr. Lauralyn McIntyre with Christine Caron, who is a lead patient partner in sepsis research.

Sepsis statistics