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Why It's Important to Know About Sepsis

What is sepsis and why should you be concerned about it? Health care providers regularly warn about the dangers of developing sepsis following surgery or as a complication of other illnesses.

Sepsis is a severe illness caused by an infection that can begin anywhere in the body. It can be life-threatening and affect anyone. Nationally, more than 100,000 cases of sepsis occur each year with a 28.2% percent mortality rate in 2014.

“It’s very important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of sepsis so that the person affected can be treated as quickly as possible,” says Dr. Carmen Agcaoili, critical care pulmonologist and medical director of the Intensivist Program and Critical Care Units at Washington Hospital. Left unchecked, sepsis is deadly.

When you have an infection, your body sets your immune system to work to fight it, Dr. Agcaoili explains. Normally, the immune system, often aided by medication, rest and other strategies, is successful in defeating the infection.

Sepsis occurs when the immune system’s reaction is excessive and becomes more than the body can tolerate. Organs in the body, including the kidneys, may stop functioning, and the patient may go into septic shock. This progression, often leading to death, can happen very quickly, within hours.

Sepsis is easily controlled if you know the symptoms to watch for, Dr. A. explains. “It’s not unlike being aware of the symptoms of a heart attack or stroke. If you know what to look for and act quickly, the infection can be treated effectively.”

To educate the public about sepsis and its symptoms, Washington Hospital is offering a free community seminar, “The Signs and Symptoms of Sepsis,” from 1 to 3 p.m. on Tuesday, August 4. The seminar, led by Dr. Agcaoili, will be in the Conrad E. Anderson, M.D. Auditorium, Rooms A & B, Washington West, 2500 Mowry Avenue, in Fremont.

While anyone can develop sepsis, those who are more vulnerable include the elderly, infants, individuals with weak immune systems or those undergoing chemotherapy. People with diabetes, cancer or chronic illnesses such as kidney, lung or liver disease also are at increased risk.

Key signs to watch for are a fever; a possible source of infection such as a sore throat, pneumonia or an open wound; and confusion or altered consciousness on the part of the affected person, Dr. Agcaoili says.

“If someone suddenly develops a fever, becomes confused or doesn’t seem ‘quite right,’ the best thing you can do is to get that person to the Emergency Room for evaluation,” she adds. “Just like a possible heart attack or stroke, it always is best to act quickly. The old saying: ‘Better Safe Than Sorry’ certainly comes into play here.”

For the past several years, Washington Hospital has been successful in reducing its sepsis mortality rate to less than 8 to 10 percent, significantly lower than the national average. A key has been implementing a “Sepsis Bundle” which is a group of proven interventions that, when completed quickly (generally within three to six hours of the patient’s arrival in the Emergency Room), can produce a better outcome for the patient.

The “bundle” steps include checking the lactic acid level in the blood, drawing blood cultures, giving a broad spectrum of antibiotics and fluids and administering drugs that help increase blood pressure to a normal level.

Washington Hospital’s Sepsis Project was initiated in 2007 with a generous grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and a supplemental grant in 2008. The program coordinated by Katie Choy, RN, CNS has focused on the Emergency Room, Intensive Care and Medical/Surgical units with protocols to recognize sepsis quickly and to initiate aggressive treatment.

Washington hospital was accepted as part of the National Surviving Sepsis Campaign Collaborative (60 participating hospitals) and partnered with the Alameda Emergency Medical Services and Highland Hospital in sepsis research studies.

To register for the August 4, 2015 seminar on the signs and symptoms of sepsis, visit or call 800.963.7070.