• Blood Poisoning

    (Sepsis; Septicemia)


    Blood poisoning, also called septicemia or sepsis, is the presence of 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
    Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

    Risk Factors

    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:
      • Cancer or cancer treatment
      • Type 2 diabetes
      • HIV infection or another condition that suppresses the immune system, such as an autoimmune disease or immune deficiency
      • Medications that suppress the immune system
    • Medical treatment with an invasive device
    • IV drug abuse
    • Crowded living conditions, which can occur with 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
    • Weakness
    • 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.

    Supportive Care

    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.


    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention http://www.cdc.gov

    Infectious Diseases Society of America http://www.idsociety.org


    Health Canada http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

    Public Health Agency of Canada http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca


    Early-onset neonatal sepsis. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T901439/Early-onset-neonatal-sepsis. Updated August 11, 2016. Accessed September 29, 2016.

    Late-onset neonatal sepsis. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116619/Late-onset-neonatal-sepsis. Updated August 11, 2016. Accessed September 29, 2016.

    Sepsis in adults. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115805/Sepsis-in-adults. Updated June 8, 2016. Accessed September 29, 2016.

    Sepsis in children. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T326289/Sepsis-in-children. Updated October 22, 2015. Accessed September 29, 2016.

    10/6/2014 DynaMed Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Holland TL, Arnold C, et al. Clinical management of Staphylococcus aureus bacteremia: a review. JAMA. 2014 Oct 1;312(13):1330-41.

    Revision Information

    • Reviewer: David Horn, MD
    • Review Date: 05/2016
    • Update Date: 10/07/2014
  • LiveWell personal health survey

    How healthy are you really? Find out – free.Learn more

    It's time to stop guessing. If you want to make some changes but just aren't sure how, the free personal health survey from LiveWell is a great place to start.

  • HeartSHAPE Spotlight

    At risk for a heart attack? Learn more

    Fight heart disease and prevent heart attacks. HeartSHAPE® is a painless, non-invasive test that checks pictures of your heart for early-stage coronary disease.

  • Calories and Energy Needs

    Calorie NeedsLearn more

    How many calories do you need to eat each day to maintain your weight and fuel your physical activity? Enter a few of your stats into this calculator to find out.

  • Ideal Body Weight

    Ideal Body WeightLearn more

    Using body mass index as a reference, this calculator determines your ideal body weight range. All you need to do is enter your height.

  • Body Mass Index

    Body Mass IndexLearn more

    This tool considers your height and weight to assess your weight status.

  • Can we help answer your questions?

    Wellmont Nurse Connection is your resource for valuable health information any time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Speak to a Nurse any time, day or night, at (423) 723-6877 or toll-free at 1-877-230-NURSE.