by Courtney Terry, HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake
What do Muhammad Ali, Pope John Paul II, and Brittany Murphy have in common? They all died of a common, life-threatening, and tragically preventable condition called sepsis. While many people aren’t familiar with sepsis, most have experienced the everyday illnesses that can develop into the condition. Any infection, such as pneumonia or a UTI, can quickly turn deadly – even in the youngest and healthiest people – if the body’s attempt to fight the illness ends up damaging its own tissues and organs.
Sepsis is so severe and fast-acting, in fact, that for every hour treatment is delayed, there is a substantial increase in mortality. According to the Centers for Disease Control, sepsis is the eighth-leading cause of death in Texas. In an effort to reduce mortality, the federal government has worked with hospitals to greatly improve sepsis detection systems and response protocols. While measures like these help, patients and their families continue to be the first line of defense. A few simple steps can help keep sepsis at bay and prevent relatively minor infections from escalating into potentially deadly sepsis. These include:
- If you think you might have an infection, seek treatment early. The longer your body is fighting an infection, the greater the chance for organ or tissue damage. It is critical that you and your family consult your primary care physician upon experiencing symptoms of infection, such as fever and chills, reduced urine output, or nausea and vomiting. Symptoms that seem manageable one minute can quickly spiral out of control if the infection spreads.
- If you’re being treated for an infection, monitor your condition closely. Has your doctor ever told you to come back if your symptoms continue or worsen after taking antibiotics? Listen to them. Particularly if your fever comes back, or your heart rate increases, you’re breathing more quickly than usual, or you have a chance in mental state, it’s important to seek immediate medical attention.
- If you or your loved one have comorbidities, pay extra attention. People who have an underlying condition, such as diabetes, cancer, and heart and lung problems, as well as those undergoing chemo or who have recently had a transplant, in addition to their infection, are at additional risk for sepsis. Whether this applies to yourself or a loved one, monitor the condition of these patients closely.
- Talk to people about sepsis. If caught early, sepsis is generally curable. Because it can look very similar to other illnesses, there can be false alarms in attempting to detect sepsis. This is better than the alternative. Never be afraid to ask your doctor if they have considered your infection may be sepsis, or to suggest friends and family members do the same. Everyone is human, and sepsis can be missed. The question, “could it be sepsis” may save a life.
Courtney Terry is sepsis coordinator at HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake, the first hospital in Harris County to be awarded the Joint Commission’s Gold Seal of Approval® for Sepsis Certification.