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What Are the Common Causes of Sepsis?

Sepsis is a life-threatening medical condition that occurs when the body triggers an overwhelming reaction to serious trauma like infection. Sepsis—sometimes called septicemia—is a common problem seen in nursing homes and hospitals. Bacterial, viral, or fungal infections are the most common causes of sepsis. When quickly identified and aggressively treated, sepsis is curable; however, when medical providers fail to prevent or promptly treat sepsis, it results in severe illness, organ shutdown, and death. Tragically, studies show that sepsis is present in one out of every three hospital deaths.

Fortunately, not every infection becomes sepsis, so what is sepsis, why does it occur, and what makes it an all too common problem in nursing homes, hospitals, and other healthcare settings?

What Are the Common Causes of Sepsis?

What Is Sepsis?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) describes sepsis as a “life-threatening emergency.” Although anyone can get an infection at any time, the vast majority of viral, bacterial, and fungal infections do not cause sepsis. Yet around 1.7 million people develop sepsis each year in the U.S. alone, and about 350,000 of them die. 

Sepsis occurs when an existing infection triggers an extreme chain reaction of immune defenses within the body. Inflammation is one of the body’s most powerful defenses against disease and injury, but when this critical defense mechanism overacts, it turns against the body and causes organ damage. The cascade of bodily reactions sometimes triggered by infection begins when an infection leaves the local site and enters the bloodstream. If the body’s attempt to attack the infection goes into overdrive and causes inflammation throughout the body, the inflammation interferes with blood flow, causing a drop in blood pressure and a lack of oxygen in the cells throughout the body. This leads to organ failure in vital organs such as the lungs, heart, and kidneys, eventually resulting in death if not promptly and aggressively treated.

Why Is Sepsis More Common in Clinical Settings?

Sepsis is the deadliest reaction to any of several known hospital-associated infections (HAIs), which include staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), and Clostridium difficile (C. diff) infections.

As with HAIs, sepsis is most common in those with weakened immune systems, the elderly, and post-surgical patients—all of whom make up the majority of patients in clinical settings like hospitals and nursing homes. In addition, many cases of sepsis occur while a patient is in the clinical setting when the patient is undergoing treatment or care for an unrelated illness or injury. This occurs when a medical treatment introduces bacteria into the body during the normal course of medical care through invasive care measures such as the following:

  • Central lines (IV)
  • Catheters
  • Post-surgical site infections
  • Ventilators

In addition, hospital patients and nursing home residents live in close quarters with others who are ill or have weakened immune systems. Caregivers move from room to room and from patient to patient, sometimes bringing infections with them.

Hospitals, nursing homes, and other clinical settings have a duty to prevent infection and sepsis in patients by ensuring proper sterilization of medical equipment, hand hygiene, proper cleaning of bedding, towels, and hospital gowns, and rigid adherence to guidelines meant to prevent the spread of infections between patients. 

Sepsis itself is not a contagious disease, but the infections that trigger sepsis are contagious.

Sepsis in Nursing Homes

Not only is sepsis especially deadly in the elderly population, but it’s sadly a common complication seen in nursing home residents with infections. Adults over age 65 are five times as likely to develop severe sepsis from infections than younger adults, and nursing home residents are seven times more likely to develop sepsis than elderly individuals who do not live in nursing homes. The infections that most commonly trigger sepsis are common infections that develop and/or spread in nursing home populations including:

  • Respiratory infections
  • Infected bed sores
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Gastrointestinal illnesses
  • COVID-19

It’s essential for nursing homes to prevent sepsis in patients by mitigating the spread of infections between patients and by promptly recognizing the early signs of sepsis and beginning emergency treatment. When nursing homes fail to prevent and/or properly treat sepsis it’s an act of negligence that leaves the facility liable for damages including medical costs and wrongful death benefits.

Risk Factors for Developing Sepsis

Elderly individuals, those with weakened immune systems, and premature infants face the highest risk of developing sepsis. Patients with gastrointestinal problems that may cause perforation or ruptures of the intestines are also at a high risk of sepsis. Common risk factors for sepsis include the following:

  • Being over age 65 or under a year old
  • A compromised immune system
  • Chronic bed sores
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic kidney or liver diseases
  • Dependence on invasive devices like catheters, IVs, and breathing tubes
  • Long hospital stays
  • ICU stays
  • History of frequent antibiotic use 

What Are the Symptoms of Sepsis in Each Stage?

The best way to decrease sepsis deaths in clinical settings is to prevent infections, but it’s also critical to detect and diagnose sepsis in its earliest stage. Recognizing the three stages of sepsis is fundamental for providing proper treatment.

Stage-One Sepsis:

In its earliest stage, sepsis causes fever and shortness of breath in patients with infections. The patient’s blood pressure may also begin to drop during stage one due to body-wide inflammation at the cellular level, which interferes with blood flow.

Stage-Two Sepsis:

Medical professionals consider sepsis as severe in stage two. Organ dysfunction begins in this stage. Infected individuals may lose consciousness and develop heart problems. They may stop urinating and have discolored skin or sepsis rash.

Stage-Three Sepsis (Septic Shock)

In stage three, sepsis triggers a severe drop in blood pressure, causing major organs to shut down, commonly including the kidneys, lungs, and heart. Individuals with stage-three sepsis are at risk of death.


What is the “Duty of Care” for Medical Providers to Prevent Sepsis Deaths?

Medical providers and caregivers in hospitals and nursing homes must take protective measures to prevent patients at high risk from developing sepsis. They should also recognize the signs of sepsis development at the earliest possible stage and begin emergency treatment to prevent the illness from progressing.

Medical providers have a duty of care to treat patients and nursing home residents at the level of care accepted as the standard by the medical community. If they breach this duty of care, it’s an act of negligence, leaving them liable for damages in a medical malpractice lawsuit and a Phoenix nursing home abuse attorney can help.

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