What to Know About Blood Poisoning (2022)

Contrary to its name, blood poisoning does not involve poison. It refers to bacteria in the blood related to an infection. This bacteria is known as bacteremia. It does not always result in an infection, but when it does, it can be life-threatening.

Blood poisoning is not a medical term, but can refer to septicemia or sepsis. Septicemia is a bacterial infection in the blood. Sepsis is the body-wide inflammatory response to that infection, which can lead to organ failure or death.

Focusing on sepsis, this article discusses blood poisoning symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

What to Know About Blood Poisoning (1)

Symptoms

Symptoms of sepsis include the following:

  • Fever or chills
  • Sweating
  • Pain or discomfort
  • Increased heart rate
  • Confusion
  • Rapid breathing
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness

Signs of infection elsewhere in the body may be present. These include:

  • Skin wounds
  • Frequency or pain with urination
  • Cough
  • Diarrhea or vomiting

Symptoms of Sepsis in the Elderly

Warning Signs

Septic shock is a condition in which sepsis becomes very severe and causes low blood pressure. It is a medical emergency and typically requires treatment in an intensive care unit.

Signs of severe sepsis and septic shock include the following:

  • Low blood pressure
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Loss of consciousness

Other signs include abnormal laboratory counts:

  • White blood cell count (blood oxygenation)
  • Abnormal kidney function
  • C-reactive protein (found in blood plasma)
  • Elevated lactate
  • Elevated procalcitonin

Causes and Risk Factors

Bacteria from untreated infections in the body can enter the blood and cause an inflammatory response. The body's immune system is programmed to respond to infection, but it can be overwhelmed by sepsis.

The most common infections that can lead to sepsis include:

  • Lung infections, like pneumonia
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Skin infections
  • Gastrointestinal infections

The following may put a person at a higher risk of developing sepsis and poorer outcomes:

(Video) Sepsis: Everything You Need to Know

  • Being immunocompromised or on immunosuppressant medications
  • Having kidney disease, diabetes, or cancer
  • Children younger than 1 year
  • Age 65 or older
  • Previous hospitalization for an infection

How Is Blood Poisoning Diagnosed?

Blood poisoning can refer to either bacteremia or sepsis, and each of these has specific criteria for diagnosis.

Bacteremia

Bacteremia is diagnosed with blood cultures. Blood cultures are a laboratory test used to diagnose bacteria in the blood.

  1. Four tubes of blood are taken from two separate sites, such as left arm and right arm. Two separate sites are needed because, in the process of a blood draw, the tube may be inadvertently contaminated with normal skin bacteria, which can make the results indeterminate.
  2. From each site, blood is drawn into an anaerobic and an aerobic tube. Certain bacteria can only grow in an aerobic tube, while others may prefer an anaerobic environment.
  3. The tubes are then brought to the laboratory where they are kept in a special temperature-controlled environment for at least five days to look for bacteria.
  4. If bacteria are found, testing can be performed to determine which antibiotics will work.

Sepsis

Sepsis diagnosis has changed over the years.

Special clinical scores such as the SOFA score or the qSOFA score can be used to determine organ dysfunction. These take into account physical examination findings and lab results including respiratory rate, oxygen levels, blood pressure, level of confusion, and kidney function.

How Is Sepsis Treated?

Treatment of bacteremia and sepsis involve treating the infection itself and providing supportive care.

Infection Treatment

Strong antibiotics are prescribed for sepsis in order to broadly cover potential bacteria. Once the laboratory has determined which antibiotics will be effective (called susceptibility testing), antibiotics can be narrowed to specifically target the bacteria.

Antibiotics may be required for up to a few weeks depending on the infection.

Sometimes, definitive treatment of the infection can require procedures or surgery. For example:

  • A skin abscess requires a procedure called incision and drainage.
  • Appendicitis requires removal of the appendix (appendectomy).
  • A perforated bowel will require surgery.

Supportive Care

Supportive care is essential in treating sepsis. Depending on the severity and needs, care may be provided in the intensive care unit with close monitoring.

Supportive care involves:

  • Hydration, often with intravenous fluids
  • Intubation and mechanical ventilation with a breathing tube when the body cannot handle the oxygen demands during sepsis
  • Pressors (intravenous medications that are used to increase a low blood pressure)
  • Dialysis may be needed for kidney failure (which may be temporary)

How Can I Prevent Blood Poisoning?

Early treatment of infection offers the best way to prevent sepsis from occurring, and early treatment of sepsis offers the best chances of recovery. People who are at higher risk of sepsis should pay close attention to any signs of infection.

Keeping chronic conditions like diabetes under control can also help prevent or reduce the severity of infections. Keeping vaccinations up to date is an important step to preventing certain viral and bacterial infections.

In addition, hygienic measures such as hand washing and preparing and handling food properly can help prevent infection.

Summary

Blood poisoning is a non-medical term used to describe an infection in the bloodstream, or sepsis. Sepsis is a medical emergency that requires hospitalization for treatment of infection.

Sepsis can result from lung, skin, gastrointestinal, or urological infections. It is more likely to occur in immunocompromised people, people with chronic health conditions, children under age 1, or adults age 65 and older.

(Video) How to recognize sepsis symptoms

Symptoms of sepsis include fever, chills, sweating, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, and confusion. Early treatment offers the best chances of recovery.

A Word From Verywell

If you think you have an infection, it's important to have it evaluated and treated promptly so that it doesn't spread or lead to sepsis. Some people are at higher risk of infection or may have a harder time fighting off infections. Early and fast treatment is essential, so seek medical attention right away if you experience symptoms.

Frequently Asked Questions

7 Sources

(Video) Septic Shock: Treating Blood Infections, Pneumonia, Urinary Tract Infections

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is sepsis?.

  2. Juneja D. Severe sepsis and septic shock in the elderly: an overview.WJCCM. 2012;1(1):23. doi:10.5492/wjccm.v1.i1.23

  3. Clifford KM, Dy-Boarman EA, Haase KK, Maxvill K, Pass SE, Alvarez CA. Challenges with diagnosing and managing sepsis in older adults.Expert Review of Anti-infective Therapy. 2016;14(2):231-241. doi:10.1586/14787210.2016.1135052

  4. Rello J, Valenzuela-Sánchez F, Ruiz-Rodriguez M, Moyano S. Sepsis: a review of advances in management.Adv Ther. 2017;34(11):2393-2411. doi:10.1007/s12325-017-0622-8

  5. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Septicemia.

  6. Singer M, Deutschman CS, Seymour CW, et al. The third international consensus definitions for sepsis and septic shock (Sepsis-3).JAMA.2016;315(8):801–810. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.0287

  7. Gyawali B, Ramakrishna K, Dhamoon AS. Sepsis: the evolution in definition, pathophysiology, and management.SAGE Open Medicine. 2019;7:205031211983504. doi:10.1177/2050312119835043

What to Know About Blood Poisoning (2)

By Angela Ryan Lee, MD
Angela Ryan Lee, MD, is board-certified in cardiovascular diseases and internal medicine. She is a fellow of the American College of Cardiology and holds board certifications from the American Society of Nuclear Cardiology and the National Board of Echocardiography. She completed undergraduate studies at the University of Virginia with a B.S. in Biology, medical school at Jefferson Medical College, and internal medicine residency and cardiovascular diseases fellowship at the George Washington University Hospital. Her professional interests include preventive cardiology, medical journalism, and health policy.

(Video) What YOU Need to Know about Sepsis

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FAQs

What happens when someone has blood poisoning? ›

About sepsis

a high temperature (fever) or low body temperature. a change in mental state – like confusion or disorientation. slurred speech. cold, clammy and pale or mottled skin.

What are the chances of surviving blood poisoning? ›

Sepsis may cause abnormal blood clotting that results in small clots or burst blood vessels that damage or destroy tissues. Most people recover from mild sepsis, but the mortality rate for septic shock is about 40%.

Can you have blood poisoning without knowing? ›

It's clear that sepsis doesn't occur without an infection in your body, but it is possible that someone develops sepsis without realizing they had an infection in the first place. And sometimes, doctors never discover what the initial infection was.

What are the stages of blood poisoning? ›

The three stages of sepsis are: sepsis, severe sepsis, and septic shock. When your immune system goes into overdrive in response to an infection, sepsis may develop as a result.

Can blood poisoning cured? ›

Management and Treatment

Septicemia requires immediate treatment to prevent the condition from worsening to sepsis. Infections caused by bacteria are treated with antibiotics. The type of antibiotic you need depends on the type of bacteria that caused the infection.

What does the start of blood poisoning look like? ›

The symptoms of blood poisoning are similar to symptoms of a cold or the flu and may include: Chills, shivering. Sudden fever (moderate to high temperature) Fast heartbeat.

How fast does blood poisoning occur? ›

This severe disease can develop within a matter of a few hours. 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 are the early warning signs of sepsis? ›

The signs and symptoms of sepsis can include a combination of any of the following:
  • confusion or disorientation,
  • shortness of breath,
  • high heart rate,
  • fever, or shivering, or feeling very cold,
  • extreme pain or discomfort, and.
  • clammy or sweaty skin.
31 Aug 2017

How long can you have sepsis before it kills you? ›

When treatment or medical intervention is missing, sepsis is a leading cause of death, more significant than breast cancer, lung cancer, or heart attack. Research shows that the condition can kill an affected person in as little as 12 hours.

What are the red flags for sepsis? ›

Severe breathlessness or sleepiness. It feels like you're going to die or pass out. Skin mottled or discoloured. An extremely high or a very low temperature; repeated vomiting; seizures; and a rash which doesn't fade when you press a glass against it are also possible 'red flags'.

How fast can sepsis set in? ›

"When an infection reaches a certain point, this can happen in a matter of hours." Sepsis usually starts out as an infection in just one part of the body, such as a skin wound or a urinary tract infection, Tracey says.

What is the first stage of sepsis? ›

Stage one: Systemic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (SIRS)

Sepsis can be hard to identify, but is typically denoted by a very high or low body temperature, high heart rate, high respiratory rate, high or low white blood cell count and a known or suspected infection.

What does sepsis pain feel like? ›

Weakness or aching muscles. Not passing much (or any) urine. Feeling very hot or cold, chills or shivering. Feeling confused, disoriented, or slurring your speech.

How do they test for sepsis? ›

Blood tests may reveal the following signs suggestive of sepsis: E levated or low white blood cells – Higher than usual levels of leukocytes, known as white blood cells (WBCs), are a sign of a current infection, while too few WBCs indicate that a person is at higher risk of developing one.

What does the start of blood poisoning look like? ›

Recognizing the symptoms of blood poisoning

weakness. rapid breathing. increased heart rate or palpitations. paleness of the skin, especially in the face.

What are the early warning signs of sepsis? ›

The signs and symptoms of sepsis can include a combination of any of the following:
  • confusion or disorientation,
  • shortness of breath,
  • high heart rate,
  • fever, or shivering, or feeling very cold,
  • extreme pain or discomfort, and.
  • clammy or sweaty skin.
31 Aug 2017

What does a blood poisoning look like? ›

Blood poisoning refers to sepsis, a condition in which an infection leads to a life-threatening inflammatory response. Symptoms include fever, high heart rate, low blood pressure, and confusion. Depending on the source of infection, diarrhea, cough, urinary symptoms, or skin infection may be present.

Can sepsis be cured? ›

Most people make a full recovery from sepsis. But it can take time. You might continue to have physical and emotional symptoms. These can last for months, or even years, after you had sepsis.

Videos

1. What YOU Need to Know about Sepsis
(MedStar Health)
2. 'Don't ignore the symptoms,' Sepsis survivor says
(WPLG Local 10)
3. Sepsis and Septic Shock, Animation.
(Alila Medical Media)
4. Sepsis: The Body’s Deadly Response to Infection
(National Institute of General Medical Sciences)
5. What Are The Signs Of Sepsis? | This Morning
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6. Sepsis 101: Diagnosis and Treatment
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