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How to Detect Sepsis

Lisa Brandt - November 29, 2017 11:43 AM

Often times, you’ll read that someone has died due to “complications”; complications from cancer, from AIDS, from a variety of things. Whenever I see that vague term, I suspect it might have been sepsis. Many doctors are still reluctant to use the proper word and prefer to say complications instead. When asked why, one physician responded, “Because no one knows what sepsis is.”

Education has to come first. That doctor and others like him ought to say the word and explain it to family and colleagues. But it’s not entirely the fault of the medical profession. Precious little time is devoted to sepsis in doctors’ own education, even though it’s the leading killer of children around the world, and affects more than 1.6-million Americans every year.  According to stats from the Centers for Disease Control, sepsis kills more Americans every year than prostate cancer, breast cancer and AIDS combined.

Sepsis is the immune system’s overreaction to an infection. The body turns on itself and attacks organ systems, and it can happen to someone who’s battling a chronic illness, or someone who’s healthy, at any stage of life. It could begin with a tiny cut, pneumonia, dental surgery, or a multitude of other reasons, and its randomness is what makes it confusing and confounding. If sepsis isn’t treated quickly it can lead to organ failure, amputation and death.

Most people know the signs of a heart attack. Few known the symptoms of sepsis:

S – Shivering, fever or very cold
E – Extreme pain or general discomfort
P – Pale or discolored skin
S – Sleepy, difficult to rouse, confused
I – “I feel like I might die”
S – Shortness of breath

The latest survey by Sepsis Alliance shows familiarity with the word is on the rise. Fifty-eight percent of respondents had heard of sepsis, likely attributable, at least in part, to the widely reported deaths of Mohammad Ali and Patty Duke from sepsis. But less than one percent could properly identify its symptoms and that’s worrying. Tell someone you love about sepsis and how to identify it. Prepare them in the unlikely event that they need to ask a doctor, “Could this be sepsis?” Ask them to pass it on. And for further reading, including sources for the above statistics, please visit

Lisa Brandt is a broadcaster and author of “How I Almost Died and You Don't Have To: My Sepsis Story” Since sepsis almost took her life in 2011, she made it her mission to educate as many people about it as possible. She also shares stories about sepsis survival and research on her Facebook page, under the title of the book.

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