Recognise blood poisoning and treat it quickly

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Blood poisoning, also known as sepsis, can develop into a life-threatening condition in a matter of hours. For this reason, it’s essential to go to a hospital or call a doctor as soon as any suspicion arises.

What blood poisoning is

The body’s immune system normally manages to combat any infection by tackling the specific part of the body which is infected. In the case of blood poisoning, also known as sepsis, the body's defences are no longer able to keep a local focus of infection under control. The pathogens – often bacteria, or, more rarely, viruses or fungi – spread throughout the body via the bloodstream which then triggers an excessive reaction in the immune system: it no longer attacks only the pathogens, but the entire body. As a result, several organs can fail at once – and the situation becomes life-threatening.

This severe disease can develop within a matter of a few hours.
Christian Trachsel, Head Physician of Internal Medicine and Intensive Care Medicine at Uster Hospital

According to estimates, 15,000 people in Switzerland fall ill with blood poisoning every year, with just under a third of patients dying of the consequences, despite treatment.

What the causes of blood poisoning are

Blood poisoning can be generated by various infections, including

  • purulent wounds 
  • urinary tract infections
  • pneumonia
  • meningitis
  • inflammation in the abdominal cavity

The risk of blood poisoning increases when the immune system is compromised, such as in people with chronic kidney and liver diseases, for example, or cancer patients treated with chemotherapy.

How to recognise blood poisoning

It is often difficult to make an unequivocal diagnosis in the case of blood poisoning. «The signs are very unspecific at the beginning,» says Christian Trachsel. And this is precisely where the danger lies: the disease is often misdiagnosed and valuable time is lost.

Symptoms

  • fever
  • chills
  • severe pain
  • confusion
  • severe exhaustion
  • rapid breathing
  • low blood pressure – if it drops sharply, a life-threatening state of shock can develop (septic shock)
  • spontaneous bleeding of the skin

For this reason, if several of the following symptoms appear and quickly worsen, it's essential to call a doctor or go to a hospital immediately.

Why insect bites usually don't cause blood poisoning

People often associate blood poisoning with bites from mosquitoes, bees or wasps. To be precise, however, the insect bite itself cannot cause blood poisoning. Nonetheless, germs can enter the body – either via the insect itself, which is very rare, or if the skin around the bite is scratched and irritated. It is therefore better to apply soothing and cooling gels or creams when the bite itches.

What treatment does blood poisoning require

As a general rule: the earlier blood poisoning is treated, the higher the chances of survival and the more likely it is that complications such as organ damage can be avoided. The aim of any treatment is to stabilise the patient's condition and to get the cause of the infection under control. For the latter, antibiotics are usually prescribed, since bacteria are generally the reason for the infection.

How blood poisoning can be prevented

Blood poisoning can't be prevented directly, but it can be prevented indirectly by protecting the body from infection. Measures include

  1. washing hands regularly and thoroughly
  2. handling wounds with care 
  3. being attentive when infections appear, and consulting a doctor if necessary
  4. observing vaccination recommendations

Further information:

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