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septic shock

Septic shock is a condition caused by a serious infection that involves the blood.

What is going on in the body?
Shock is a word used to describe a certain abnormal state in the body. In this state, the body's circulation does not supply enough blood and oxygen to vital organs, such as the kidneys and the brain. Shock can have several different causes. One of the causes of shock is sepsis, a serious infection that involves the blood. This type of shock is known as septic shock.

What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?
People with shock usually have symptoms from the source of the infection, such as a lung or kidney infection. Septic shock, no matter where the infection started, can cause:
  • fever or, sometimes, an abnormally low temperature
  • chills
  • a fast, weak heartbeat
  • fast breathing
  • weakness
  • warm, flushed skin or cool, clammy skin
  • confusion or a change in the level of consciousness
  • low blood pressure
What are the causes and risks of the condition?
An infection almost anywhere in the body can spread into the bloodstream and cause septic shock. Most cases start as infections in the lungs, kidney, or gut. Sometimes, the original source of the infection cannot be identified.

The primary risk of septic shock is death. Lung, heart, kidney, brain, and other organ damage may also occur. This damage is often reversible with treatment, though it can be permanent in severe cases.

What can be done to prevent the condition?
Some cases cannot be prevented. Early treatment of infections can prevent many cases. Immunisations should be obtained as advised.

How is the condition diagnosed?
The diagnosis is often suspected after a history and physical examination, often in the emergency department. The diagnosis can often be confirmed by drawing a blood sample for a blood culture. If the sample contains bacteria and the person is in shock, septic shock can usually be diagnosed with certainty. In some cases, the blood doesn't seem to have bacteria. A person may still be treated for septic shock in this case based on the history, examination, and other blood and urine tests or X-rays.

What are the long-term effects of the condition?
Death may happen quickly without treatment. Other permanent organ damage can occur in severe cases.

What are the risks to others?
Some of the infections that cause septic shock are contagious, such as pneumonia. Others, such as urinary tract infections, usually are not contagious.

What are the treatments for the condition?
A person in shock usually needs to be treated in a hospital's intensive care unit or ICU. Antibiotics are given through an intravenous or IV as soon as the diagnosis is made. Fluids are also given through an IV. Very sick people may need to be put on an artificial breathing machine, or ventilator. Medications may be needed to keep the blood pressure from getting too low. Surgery may be required in some cases, such as for some infections that started in the gut.

What are the side effects of the treatments?
All medications may cause side effects. Antibiotics can cause allergic reactions, stomach upset, and other side effects. Other effects depend on the medications used. A ventilator can rarely cause a new infection or lung damage. Surgery carries a risk of bleeding, infection, and even death.

What happens after treatment for the condition?
Septic shock may cause death even with the best treatment available. Many cases can be treated, and most people have a full recovery. If a person recovers, he or she is usually sent home and can return to normal activities. Permanent disabilities can rarely occur from septic shock and may require ongoing treatment.

How is the condition monitored?
Symptoms and physical examination are followed. Blood and urine tests and X-rays may also be needed in many cases for monitoring.

Author: Adam Brochert, MD
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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