Sepsis: Deadly infection is a "race against time"

Dana Mirman thought the bump on her arm was an insect bite, but it turned out to be a potentially fatal infection.

Photo courtesy of Dana Mirman

Five years ago, Dana Mirman noticed a small bump on her shoulder that she thought was an insect bite. Within 24 hours, her shoulder became extremely swollen, she was experiencing flu-like symptoms, and had a fever of 104 degrees.

Her husband brought her to the emergency room, where Mirman was quickly identified as a patient in septic shock. The bump on her shoulder turned out to be an infection, which had become cellulitis (a bacterial infection of the skin and soft tissue) and then sepsis when the infection got into her bloodstream. Having been perfectly healthy up until this point, she was shocked to learn her diagnosis.

“The thought that it could be sepsis never even crossed my mind,” Mirman told CBS News. “I had heard of it before but I had always thought of it as a rare disease that wasn’t something that I had any context for.”

Mirman’s blood pressure was extremely low and she was immediately treated with IV fluids and antibiotics. After several days in the ICU, her blood pressure stabilized and she was transferred to a regular hospital room for another course of antibiotics before she was well enough to go home.

She describes the experience as “extremely scary.” “I was aware at different points that if I didn’t respond to treatments, I could die,” she said.

Now, Mirman is sharing her story to raise awareness about sepsis in the hope that others may pick up on signs in themselves or family members so they can get treatment as quickly as possible.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 1 and 3 million people in the United States are diagnosed with sepsis each year, and between 15 and 30 percent of those patients die.

“Sepsis is the body’s over-reactive response to an infection,” Dr. Anthony Fiore, chief of the Epidemiological Research & Innovations Branch at the CDC, told CBS News. “It can be so deadly because it can lead to organ failure and death because of lack of blood flow and inflammation associated with it.”

Who gets sepsis?

A CDC report released today aims to identify the types of people most likely to get sepsis.

The report showed that that for nearly 80 percent of patients, sepsis begins outside of the hospital. But it also found that 7 in 10 patients with sepsis had recently used health care services or had chronic diseases requiring frequent medical care.

There is no specific diagnostic test for sepsis, but clinicians diagnose it based on a combination of symptoms and biomarkers found in lab tests. Getting to a hospital early is paramount, because the longer a patient goes without treatment, the more likely it is that the infection will turn fatal.

People can help identify sepsis in themselves or in loved ones and immediately seek medical attention if they notice these symptoms after developing an infection:

·      Shivering, fever, or very cold

·      Extreme pain or discomfort

·      Clammy or sweaty skin

·      Confusion or disorientation

·      Shortness of breath

·      High heart rate

In a press briefing, CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden, whose own son survived sepsis more than two decades ago, emphasized that sepsis is a “medical emergency.”

“Helping patients to know to ask ‘could this be sepsis?’ empowers them to potentially save their own or family members’ lives,” he said. “Recognition and treatment against sepsis is a race against time.”

The most common infections that can lead to sepsis include lung infections, such as pneumonia, urinary tract infection, gut infection, and skin infection.

Fiore said that people who are more susceptible to these types of infections – including those 65 or older, babies younger than a year, people with a weakened immune system, and those with chronic health conditions like diabetes – should take steps to prevent infections, which will also help protect them against sepsis.

For example, people can help prevent lung infections by getting the flu and pneumococcal vaccines.

Those living with diabetes, Fiore points out, are more prone to getting skin infections and should be extra vigilant in cleaning wounds and watching for signs of sepsis.

Common germs that can cause sepsis include Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli (E. coli), and some types of Streptococcus, so people who have these infections should also be aware of the signs of sepsis.

Finally, since even healthy people can get sepsis, merely practicing good hygiene, such as frequent hand washing and bathing regularly, can go a long way in preventing the condition.

Lasting effects

While many people recover from sepsis and return to their normal lives, others experience long-term complications. For example, in a person who already had kidney problems​, sepsis can lead to kidney failure that requires lifelong dialysis.

Mirman experienced severe swelling for several weeks after the initial infection, and symptoms like fatigue, headache, and dizziness for months after.

What’s more, the psychological impact of the infection took a major toll.

“When I came home and I did not feel all the way better, it was so scary because I couldn’t understand – how do I know that I’m really OK? It took so long to have that confidence in my health again, especially when you’re experiencing fatigue and migraines and these conditions that I hadn’t had before,” she said.

Now, Mirman hopes her story will help others learn the signs of sepsis and act quickly if they think they or a loved one is showing signs.

“I was very fortunate because the hospital recognized sepsis and treated me immediately and not everyone gets that outcome,” she said. “But that being said, I was in septic shock and had I thought that swelling on my skin on my arm combined with sudden onset of severe flu-like symptoms could have been sepsis, I could have presented [to the hospital] even sooner and have gotten treatment sooner and have saved myself the ICU or maybe even being admitted.”    

  • Ashley Welch On Twitter»

    Ashley Welch covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com