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What is Blood Poisoning?

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I remember my grandfather coming in one day with a severe cut on his foot. He proceeded to soak the wound in kerosene so that he would not be “blood poisoning.” Whether or not the kerosene actually worked or had any effect at all on the cut I can’t say.

All I knew at the time was that whatever blood poisoning was, it must be serious because kerosene only came out for the “big” injuries!

What exactly is blood poisoning? According to the Mayo Clinic, blood poisoning (septicemia) is actually a systemic disease. While lay people commonly use the term blood poisoning, it’s not an actual medical term. The correct term is septicemia or sepsis. Septicemia occurs when pathogenic microorganisms (better known to you and I as germs) or other bacteria (bacteremia) are able to enter your bloodstream through some type of a wound or infection. It’s also possible for bacteria to enter your bloodstream through an injection site or as a result of a dental or other medical procedure such as a surgery. If untreated, septicemia may progress to sepsis. The difference between blood poisoning/septicemia and sepsis is that in sepsis, the germs and toxins are not limited to your bloodstream – they may also be present in other parts of your body as well.

Blood poisoning/septicemia is a serious condition. Some of the symptoms of blood poisoning include: high fever (which comes on suddenly), chills, nausea/vomiting/abdominal pain, rapid heart rate or feeling ill. Your doctor will generally confirm a diagnosis of blood poisoning by ordering a blood culture. Blood poisoning is treated with intravenous antibiotics. If you suspect that you may have blood poisoning, you need to seek immediate medical care. Left untreated, you run the risk of blood poisoning/septicemia turning into sepsis.

Sepsis may be life threatening so quick, prompt treatment is essential. Since sepsis can affect other organs and tissue besides your blood stream, it may begin to affect your body’s ability to function, resulting in septic shock, including a drop in blood pressure, which may be fatal. The sooner sepsis is treated, the better your chances will be for survival.

There are certain groups of people who are at greater risk than others for developing sepsis. As with many conditions, both the very young and old are at greater risk as well as those with compromised immune systems (i.e. cancer patients or those undergoing cancer treatments, HIV or AIDs patients, organ transplant recipients taking anti-rejection drugs, persons with kidney/liver failure). In addition, persons who are already in the hospital or those with devices such as catheters or ports may be at greater risk. Certain types of illnesses, such as pneumonia or diabetes, or those who already have a bacterial blood infection are also at greater risk. One interesting item to note is that susceptibility to sepsis also appears to be race based as well. Persons of African-American descent are generally more susceptible to developing sepsis than persons of other ethnicities. The African-American male is also at a greater risk than an African-American woman of developing sepsis.

According to the Mayo Clinic, sepsis has three stages: sepsis, severe sepsis, followed by septic shock. Each phase of the disease has distinct symptoms.

Sepsis symptoms – two or more of the following symptoms must be present: temperature above 101.3 F (38.5 C) or below 95 F (35 C); heart rate greater than 90 beats per minute; respiration or rate: greater than 20 breaths a minute; and a probable or confirmed infection. About 15% of persons diagnosed with sepsis die.

Severe sepsis symptoms – one or more of the following symptoms must be present (Note: The presence of one of these symptoms would indicate a potential organ failure or some type of dysfunction with one of your organs.): lower platelet count; trouble breathing; mottled skin; limited urine output; mental change (generally this would be a sudden change in mental ability or status); or change in heart function from the normal. 0

Septic shock. Septic shock takes a diagnosis of severe sepsis one step further. You’ve moved from severe sepsis to septic shock, if you’ve already been diagnosed with severe sepsis and your blood pressure becomes significantly lower. This form of sepsis is extremely serious. Approximately 50% of all persons diagnosed with septic shock will not recover.

One of the reasons that sepsis is so serious is because your own immune system is working against you. Normally, your body uses inflammation to fight infections. In sepsis, something goes wrong and instead of limiting the inflammation to the point of infection only, the inflammation spreads throughout your entire body, causing microscopic blood clots as it goes. Because of the massive inflammation, your body can’t break up these blood clots and the result is serious. Because of the clots, your heart must pump harder to move the blood through your body and vital oxygen doesn’t reach your organs, which may result in gangrene or even organ failure.

Blood poisoning/septicemia and sepsis are extremely serious, life-threatening conditions. This is one time where you don’t want to try home remedies. To avoid risk of permanent injury, or even death, you should seek immediate medical attention if you suspect you may have this condition.

(Disclaimer: I am not a physician and nothing in this article should be construed as giving medical advice. As with any medical decision, please consult your physician.)

Definition of Blood Poisoning, MedicineNet.com, 27 Oct 1998, http://www.medterms.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=7232

Steckelberg, James, M.D., Blood Poisoning: What Does it Mean?, The Mayo Clinic, 22 Jan 2008, http://mayoclinic.com/health/blood-poisoning/AN00716

Sepsis, The Mayo Clinic, 24 Jul 2009, http://mayoclinic.com/health/sepsis/DS01004

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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