Blood poisoning, also called septicemia or sepsis, is an illness due to an infection or its toxin spreading through the bloodstream.
The presence of bacteria in the blood is called bacteremia. Short bursts of low levels of bacteria in the blood usually do not cause problems.
Sepsis occurs when large numbers of infectious agents exist in the blood. Infections with viruses, fungi, and parasites may lead to sepsis as well. The body responds by trying to fight the infection. Causes include:
- An existing infection
- Contagious diseases
- A dirty needle used by an IV drug user
Toxins Can Spread Through the Bloodstream
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This condition is more common in older adults, especially those with frail health. Factors that increase your chance of getting sepsis include:
- Recent illness or hospital care, especially surgery
- Poorly working immune system due to:
- Medical treatment with an invasive device
- IV drug abuse
- Crowded living conditions as in the case of some types of pneumonia and meningitis
The first symptoms depend on the site of the infection.
As the condition progresses to sepsis, symptoms may include:
- Fever and chills
- Low temperature
- Pale skin color
- Changes in mental status
- Rapid breathing
- Rapid heartbeat
- Decreased urine
- Problems with bleeding or clotting
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. If sepsis is suspected, the source of the infection will attempt to be found.
Your bodily fluids and waste products may be tested. This can be done with:
- Blood cultures and tests
- Urine cultures and tests
- Sputum cultures
- Stool cultures
Images may be taken of your bodily structures. This can be done with:
This condition will need to be treated aggressively. Treatment is aimed at the cause of the initial infection.
Early treatment improves the chance of survival. Life-saving steps may be needed to assist breathing and heart function. People with sepsis usually need to be observed in an intensive care unit.
IV antibiotics will be used to fight a bacterial infection and to clear it from your blood. You may be given oral antibiotics when you leave the hospital.
Surgery is sometimes needed to remove or drain the initial infection.
You will likely receive other medications, IV fluids, and oxygen. If your blood pressure remains too low, you may need vasopressors—medications to help maintain your normal blood pressure. Blood transfusions and a respirator to help you breathe may be necessary in some cases.
Further treatment depends on how your body is responding. For example, you may need kidney dialysis if kidney failure occurs.
It is not always possible to prevent blood poisoning. Avoiding IV drug use decreases your chance of sepsis. Health care professionals must also take steps to stop the spread of these infections. Getting prompt medical care for infections can reduce your risk of sepsis.
Infectious Diseases Society of America http://www.idsociety.org
Updated September 3, 2013. Accessed June 19, 2014.
Late-onset neonatal sepsis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:
Updated April 20, 2015. Accessed June 10, 2015.
Sepsis in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:
Updated May 12, 2015. Accessed June 10, 2015.
Sepsis in children. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:
Updated July 30, 2014. Accessed June 10, 2015.
10/6/2014 DynaMed’s Systematic Literature Surveillance
Holland TL, Arnold C, et al. Clinical management of Staphylococcus aureus bacteremia: a review. JAMA. 2014 Oct 1;312(13):1330-41.
Last Updated: 10/7/2014