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How Does Sepsis Kill?

By Burg Simpson

February 21, 2013   Colorado Blog, Colorado Medical Malpractice

Image Credit: This image is used courtesy of the CDC, and is in the public domain.

Sepsis is an emerging health concern that has gained a lot of attention in the last several years. It is something I’ve written about several times on this blog, and it’s also an issue I encounter with some frequency in my own clients’s cases. What makes sepsis so scary is that it can kill you–and quickly, at that. You’ve probably heard stories about young healthy people who suffer a¬†scrape on the playground and then die within a matter of hours or days. It seems too bizarre to be a real risk–but doesn’t it make you wonder, how does sepsis kill? And how is it possible that sepsis can kill you so quickly?

The speed with which sepsis can turn fatal is often a product of the specific bug involved and the body’s immune response to that bug. While not all sepsis is caused by bacteria, I’ll use that example here. As the body detects and tries to respond to the bacteria, complicated chemical reactions occur between them that can cause the immune system to go haywire–toxic chemicals are released that cause tissue damage and organ failure. Once that process begins, it can be difficult to reverse before sepsis kills the patient.

In cases of severe sepsis, red blood cells become damaged and leak out their contents, including the molecule that carries oxygen to the body’s organs and tissues. The effects of this are to significantly worsen inflammation, and at the same time, decrease the body’s ability to provide adequate blood and oxygen to the organs. This can lead to organ failure, which can kill you very quickly. In many cases, the body’s normal response to leaky red blood cells is to create a chemical called hemopexin that helps to sort of clean up the mess–but in severe sepsis cases, the hemopexin cleaning crew is basically on a coffee break and doesn’t provide much help.

Delays in Diagnosis and Mortality Rates

The other thing that pushes so many patients with sepsis toward death is the passage of time. Even small delays in receiving the right care can make a dramatic difference in the struggle between life and death. When I wrote about this in 2012, the information available at the time demonstrated that for every hour proper care was delayed, the risk of death increased by 7%. Now the research shows it’s 8%–and depending on the specific circumstances involved, possibly even higher. But the early signs of sepsis can be vague, making diagnosis more difficult for physicians who aren’t paying close attention.

If a doctor or hospital delays the start of emergency care for this problem by 4-6 hours, that patient has almost a 50% chance of dying…which continues to increase with increasing delay. Scary to think about.

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