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Sepsis common and even deadly, yet many Americans don't know what it is

Inflammation of blood vessels from sepsis
Inflammation of blood vessels from sepsis
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Only 44 percent of Americans have ever heard of a condition called sepsis, even though it carries a high mortality rate and affects more than a quarter-million Americans a year, according to a recent Harris poll conducted on behalf of the Sepsis Alliance in San Diego.

A 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicated that sepsis is the single most expensive health condition to treat. It costs the American health care system about $20 billion a year.

Sepsis is a serious illness that happens when the body’s normal reaction to fight an infection malfunctions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can happen following surgery or other invasive procedures, when an infection such as pneumonia happens, or when there is an open wound. Sometimes it is unclear how an infection enters the bloodstream.

Sepsis can quickly become life-threatening. The body’s immune system releases chemicals into the blood to fight infections but sometimes those chemicals themselves can cause inflammation. This leads to blood clots and organ damage.

In severe cases, sepsis can weaken the heart, shut down other organs, and may lead to death. Recognizing and treating sepsis early with intravenous fluids and antibiotics is important to preventing serious complications.

“Sepsis is devastating to patients and their families. This [Hall] survey tells us that there is much more work needed to raise awareness,” says Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the CDC. “CDC is committed to protecting patients by increasing sepsis awareness, enhancing prevention and early detection, and improving treatment.”

Sepsis Alliance is sponsoring Sepsis Awareness Month in September, including rallies and other events in New York City and elsewhere.

“We have a record number of partners participating in this year’s Sepsis Awareness Month,” says Thomas Heymann, executive director of the alliance, “but these survey results prove there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. Increasing awareness in the general public is essential in helping people advocate for their own health care, stopping this deadly disease in its tracks.”

Here are some facts on sepsis from the Sepsis Alliance:

  • It is the number one killer of newborn infants and children in the world.
  • It is a medical emergency. For every hour that treatment is delayed, mortality increases by 8 percent.
  • More than 1.6 million Americans are hospitalized yearly with sepsis, or one every 20 seconds.
  • It is the third leading cause of death in the United States.
  • Although 1.4 million people survive sepsis, 59 percent of people aged 50 and older suffer some sort of lasting disability.

According to the Sepsis Alliance, it’s important to seek emergency treatment right away with sepsis. Symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Drop in body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Fast breathing
  • Fast heartbeat (over 90 beats per minute)
  • Confusion
  • Swelling
  • High blood glucose without diabetes
  • Low blood pressure
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