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Blood Poisoning

(Sepsis; Septicemia)

En Español (Spanish Version)

Definition | Causes | Risk Factors | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment | Prevention


Blood poisoning is an illness due to an infection or its toxin spreading through the bloodstream. The presence of bacteria in the blood is called bacteremia.

Short bursts of low levels of bacteria in the blood usually do not cause problems. However, if bacteria levels do not decrease, then sepsis may occur.


Sepsis occurs when large numbers of infectious agents exist in the blood. Infections with viruses, fungi, and parasites may lead to sepsis as well. Causes include:

  • An existing infection
  • Contagious diseases
  • A dirty needle used by an IV drug user

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Risk Factors

Factors that increase your chance of getting sepsis include:

  • Recent illness or hospital care, especially surgery
  • Frail health due to increased age
  • Poorly working immune system due to:
    • Cancer or chemotherapy to treat cancer
    • Diabetes
    • AIDS or another immunosuppressive condition, such as an autoimmune disease or an immune deficiency
    • Immunosuppressive medications needed after a transplant
  • Medical treatment with an invasive device
  • IV drug abuse
  • Crowded living conditions as in the case of some types of pneumonia and meningitis


The first symptoms depend on the site of the infection.

As the condition progresses to sepsis, symptoms may include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Low temperature
  • Pale skin color
  • Weakness
  • Changes in mental status
  • Rapid breathing/distress
  • Increased heart rate/weak pulse
  • Decreased urine
  • Problems with bleeding or clotting


The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. If sepsis is suspected, the doctor will try to find the source of the infection.

Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with:

  • Blood cultures and tests
  • Urine cultures and tests
  • Sputum cultures
  • Stool cultures

Images may be taken of your bodily structures. This can be done with:


This condition will need to be treated aggressively. Treatment is aimed at the cause of the initial infection.

Early treatment improves the chance of survival. Life-saving steps may be needed to assist breathing and heart function. Patients usually need to be observed in an intensive care unit.

IV antibiotics will be used to fight the initial infection and to clear it from your blood. You will be given oral antibiotics when you leave the hospital.

Surgery is sometimes needed to remove or drain the initial infection.

You will likely receive other medications, IV fluids, and oxygen. If your blood pressure remains too low, you may need vasopressors—medicines to help maintain your normal blood pressure. Blood transfusions and a respirator to help you breathe may be necessary in some cases.

Further treatment depends on how your body is responding. For example, you may need kidney dialysis if kidney failure occurs.


It is not always possible to prevent blood poisoning. Avoiding IV drug abuse decreases your chance of sepsis. Healthcare professionals must also take steps to stop the spread of these infections. Getting prompt medical care for infections can reduce your risk of sepsis.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Society of Critical Care Medicine



Public Health Agency of Canada



Neonatal sepsis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated April 18, 2013. Accessed June 17, 2013.

Sepsis in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated May 21, 2013. Accessed June 17, 2013.

Sepsis in children. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated May 17, 2013. Accessed June 17, 2013.

Last reviewed June 2013 by Marcin Chwistek, MD; Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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