Smartphone and calling emergency hotline

Every 20 seconds, another person in the United States will be diagnosed with sepsis. Sepsis is the body’s extreme response to an infection. It is life-threatening, and without timely treatment, sepsis can rapidly lead to tissue damage, organ failure and death. Sepsis happens when an infection you already have—in your skin, lungs, urinary tract or somewhere else—triggers a chain reaction throughout your body.

Anyone can develop sepsis, but some people are at higher risk, including adults 65 or older; people with weakened immune systems; those with chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, lung disease, cancer, and kidney disease; and individuals with recent severe illness, surgery or hospitalization.

According to the National Sepsis Alliance, though 66 percent of adults in the U.S. are aware of the term sepsis, only 19 percent of those aware can identify all four of the common symptoms of sepsis that should lead a person to seek emergency care: (high temperature (fever) or low body temperature; chills and shivering; a fast heartbeat; fast breathing.

With sepsis, time is of the essence. For every hour of delayed treatment, the risk of death increases by between 4 – 9%. Experts say that 80 percent of sepsis deaths could be prevented if treated in time.

Diagnosis sepsis can be challenging as a single diagnostic test for sepsis does not yet exist. A healthcare provider can diagnose sepsis based on temperature, heart rate, breathing rate and blood work. Respiratory secretion testing, blood pressure monitoring,  imaging studies as well as wound, urine or stool cultures may also be utilized for a sepsis diagnosis. Septic shock is diagnosed when one’s blood pressure drops to very low numbers. 

White blood cell count (WBC) is one of the markers that healthcare professionals use to assess a patient’s condition. The total white blood cell count may be elevated, decreased, or within the normal range in sepsis, and the specific pattern can provide valuable information.

  1. Elevated WBC count: An increase in the total white blood cell count, known as leukocytosis, is a common response to infection, including sepsis. It indicates that the body is trying to fight off the infection by producing more white blood cells.
  2. Normal or decreased WBC count: In some cases, especially in severe sepsis or septic shock, the white blood cell count may be normal or even decreased. This can be a sign that the immune system is overwhelmed or not responding adequately to the infection.

It’s important to note that while the white blood cell count is a valuable marker, it is not the only factor considered in diagnosing sepsis. Other clinical signs and laboratory parameters, such as the presence of inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein (CRP) and procalcitonin, are also taken into account.

Healthcare providers play a vital role in recognizing and promptly treating this potentially life-threatening condition. Prompt recognition and treatment are critical for a positive outcome. If sepsis is suspected, it is important to initiate interventions, such as antibiotics, intravenous fluids, and supportive care to address the infection and stabilize the patient. Early intervention can significantly improve the chances of recovery.

Visit the National Sepsis Alliance for information on sepsis core measures and clinical practice guidelines, patient screening and identification tools, educational resources and more.

Q Tips For Your Ears Podcast Logo

Listen to our Podcast – Q-Tips For Your Ears!

TIME is Sepsis, Have You Heard: Sepsis is a medical emergency as important to understand as stroke and heart attack. Learn the symptoms and what you should say to your healthcare provider when you suspect sepsis.


Friday Focus GearsLearn more. Access our Focus 4 Health Series

Sepsis: Warning Signs, Stages and the Importance of Prompt Diagnosis and Treatment I Recording