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Sepsis is a medical emergency caused by the body’s response to infection, and when left untreated, it can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and even death. It can be caused by almost any infection, and anyone can develop an infection in their body, but young children and people over the age of 65 years face an increased risk of developing sepsis.

Here at the Department of Public Health, we promote infection prevention in health care settings and in the community so that infections that can lead to sepsis are stopped. As a proud partner in the Massachusetts Sepsis Consortium, DPH plays an important role in planning and implementing the coordinated public health response to sepsis, providing clinical expertise on issues related to infectious disease and infection prevention. Working with Consortium members, DPH helped to review clinical practice guides for the early identification and management of sepsis in hospital emergency departments.

September is Sepsis Awareness Month – learn more about the signs and symptoms of sepsis, and steps you can take to prevent it.

Older Adults

Among older adults, respiratory infections such as pneumonia and genitourinary infections such as a Sepsisurinary tract infection (UTI) are the most common infections that lead to sepsis. Infections can also happen from skin tears or pressure sores that result from sitting in a wheelchair or lying in bed for an extended period of time.

The signs of sepsis are often the same among all adults, including older adults:

  • Change in body temperature, either a fever (above 101.3°F) or a lower than normal temperature (below 95°F)
  • Rapid heart rate (above 90 beats per minute);
  • Rapid breathing (above 20 breaths per minute);
  • Shaking
  • Confusion, which may be more common among older people

Spotting infections in older adults is sometimes challenging, so it’s important to seek treatment from a health care provider right away when these symptoms arise.

Infants and Children

Like the elderly, young children, especially premature infants and babies, also face a greater risk of developing sepsis. Babies can develop sepsis if they are infected by bacteria or a virus, and they are more prone to getting sick when in the hospital for treatment or are exposed to people with contagious infections.  The most common identified germs that cause infections and can result in sepsis include Staphylococcus aureus (staph), Escherichia coli (E. coli), and some types of Streptococcus.

As children grow older and attend school or participate in other activities like sports, the risks for developing sepsis change. Wounds—from a small scrape to a surgical incision—can be the opening that germs use to enter our body and cause an infection. Like older adults, children can also develop illnesses that could lead to sepsis if they are left untreated.

For people both young and old, infection prevention is key to sepsis prevention. Here are steps you can take to help those you care for stay healthy:

  • Regular vaccinations: many illnesses, like the flu, can be prevented through routine vaccinations. Make sure you and members of your family receive an annual flu vaccination and are up-to-date on other recommended vaccinations.
  • Practice proper handwashing: frequent, proper handwashing lowers the risk of developing an infection. Use soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer to decrease the number of pathogens that could enter the body.
  • Effective wound care: reduce the risk of infection by thoroughly cleaning and covering any wound until it’s healed —even it’s just a small scrape.
  • Take infections seriously: if a loved one develops signs of an infection, seek treatment from a health care provider right away.

Early detection and effective treatment is critical. If you’re caring for children or aging parents, become familiar with how sepsis affects each age group and the signs and symptoms that you should be on the lookout for—it could save a life!

You can learn more about sepsis and Sepsis Awareness Month online by visiting the Sepsis Alliance and the Rory Staunton Foundation websites.

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