America has seen nearly 6 million cases of COVID-19 with over 180,000 deaths. Many of these deaths are the result of the respiratory effects of the virus yet many of the risk factors, such as chronic kidney disease and diabetes, have little to do with respiratory function. So, how do these risk factors relate to COVID-19 mortality? The answer, at least in part, is sepsis. September is Sepsis Awareness Month and a good time to explain the condition and how it relates to COVID-19.
What is sepsis? Sepsis is an infection that causes an exaggerated immune response resulting in life-threatening organ injury. Typically, when our body detects an infection, the immune system releases chemical signals which activate our defenses to clear the infection. The normal response includes fevers under 103°F, redness, swelling and pain. In sepsis, however, this response causes too many of these chemical signals for the body to regulate which leads to organ injury or, in some cases, death. The most common infections causing sepsis are pneumonia (both viral such as coronavirus and bacterial) and those of the urinary tract, skin and blood stream. The causes are different, but the symptoms of sepsis are often the same – very high fevers, uncontrollable shaking chills, confusion or disorientation, extreme lightheadedness, and inability to breathe.
Sepsis is uncommon in most healthy people but the very old or young, or those with chronic illnesses or impaired immune systems, carry a significantly higher risk. The most important thing we can all do to prevent sepsis is to live a healthy lifestyle, free from drugs, excessive alcohol, smoking and high sugar foods, to exercise regularly, get a good night’s sleep every night and to stay up to date on all recommended vaccinations. The germs that cause sepsis are extremely contagious. Prevention includes wearing a mask whenever you are out in public, practicing social distancing and good hand hygiene. Sound familiar? These are the very steps recommended to protect yourself from COVID-19. And, just like COVID-19, anyone can still develop sepsis. Practicing these health safety measures will significantly reduce the risk and may save your life or those of your loved ones.
Once identified, sepsis treatment begins immediately, including intravenous fluids and medication to fight the infection. It is very important to take the course of medication to its completion as directed by your physician.
The website www.sepsis.org is an excellent resource to learn more.
This week’s Health Talk is written by Rick Hildebrant, MD, MBA, Rutland Regional Medical Center Hospital Medicine Medical Director, Chief Medical Information Officer.