Septicaemia, also known as blood poisoning, occurs when there is an infection in the bloodstream and is a potentially life-threatening condition. Blood infections are most commonly caused by bacteria; however, less often can be caused by viruses or fungi. Bacteraemia is the simple presence of bacteria within the bloodstream; however, it becomes septicaemia when the bacteria begin to multiply and develop into an infection.1
Septicaemia is commonly confused with sepsis, and while the two conditions are related, they are not the same. Sepsis occurs when the body has a dysregulated and exaggerated inflammatory response to any infection, which can then cause tissue damage and organ failure in the body itself. While sepsis can develop as a complication of septicaemia, it can also develop following any other infection, such as a urinary tract infection (UTI). The differences between bacteraemia, septicaemia, and sepsis, are a very common medical misconception. In this article, we will dive in to learn more about blood infections, or septicaemia.
Causes of septicaemia
Septicaemia occurs when germs (usually bacteria) enter our bloodstream and multiply to form an infection. This usually occurs as a result of the germs spreading to the bloodstream from another part of our body, such as from a respiratory tract infection, urinary tract infection (UTI), or skin infection. Bacteria are the most common cause of septicaemia, but other microorganisms, such as viruses and fungi, can also lead to septicaemia.
The following are some of the most common bacteria which can cause septicaemia:
In some instances, septicaemia can also occur as a result of a medical procedure, such as surgery or the insertion of a catheter, which can introduce bacteria into the bloodstream.
Certain factors can increase your risk of developing septicaemia. These
- Having a weakened immune system
- Experiencing a chronic medical condition such as diabetes, certain types of cancer
- Being very young or people who are over the age of 65
- People who have recently undergone surgery or another medical procedure
- Individuals who have severe injuries such as considerable burns, open wounds, or a history of septicaemia are also at greater risk of developing septicaemia
Other possible risk factors include hemodialysis.4
Signs and symptoms of septicaemia
- Fever or chills
- Confusion or feeling lethargic
- Increased heartbeat
- Rapid breathing
- Drop in blood pressure
- A decrease in urine output
- Experiencing pain or discomfort
As septicaemia progresses and begins to develop into sepsis, this may also cause organ failure, leading to symptoms such as:
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain
- Sensitivity to light
- Purple areas on the skin (purpura)
Diagnosis of septicaemia
To diagnose septicaemia, a healthcare provider will typically order blood tests to look for the infection-causing agent and enquire about the symptoms you have. Other tests, such as imaging studies like X-rays or a lumbar puncture, may also be necessary to determine the underlying cause of the infection and the extent of the damage to the body.
Management and treatment for septicaemia
If you suspect that you or someone you know may have septicaemia, it is important to seek medical care immediately as it is a medical emergency. Treatment for septicaemia typically involves hospitalisation and the administration of antibiotics or other medication to kill the bacteria or other microorganisms causing the infection.
If left untreated, septicaemia can lead to sepsis, which is a severe and life-threatening complication. Sepsis occurs when the body's immune response to the infection causes widespread inflammation and damage to the organs. Sepsis can lead to organ failure and in some cases, it may lead to death.
If sepsis is allowed to progress without treatment, it may lead to its most severe form of septic shock, which is associated with a drop in blood pressure. Around 25% of patients who experience severe sepsis, and nearly 50% of individuals with septic shock die from the condition.2
How can I prevent septicaemia?
The best way to prevent septicaemia is to practice good hygiene and take steps to avoid infections. This may include:
- Washing your hands regularly
- Covering your mouth and nose when you are sneezing or coughing
- Avoiding close contact with individuals who are not well or sick
If you have a chronic medical condition, such as a compromised immune system, it is also important to work with your healthcare provider to manage your condition and reduce your risk of developing infections.
Is septicaemia contagious?
Septicaemia itself is not contagious, but the underlying infections that can cause septicaemia may be contagious. For example, if septicaemia is caused by a urinary tract infection, it is possible to spread the infection to others through sexual contact or poor hygiene.
How common is septicaemia?
Septicaemia is a relatively common condition, particularly among older adults and people with chronic medical conditions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are approximately 1.7 million cases of sepsis each year in the United States, with over 270,000 deaths.
Though it is still difficult to ascertain the exact global burden of this condition in public health, a study estimated that nearly 30 million individuals are affected by septicaemia per year worldwide.3
When should I see a doctor?
If you experience any symptoms of septicaemia, such as fever, chills, lightheadedness, or confusion then it is important to seek urgent medical care immediately. Prompt treatment can help prevent complications and improve your chances of a full recovery.
Septicaemia is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when bacteria or other harmful microorganisms enter the bloodstream and develop into an infection.
Although septicaemia can be caused by a variety of underlying infections, it is typically caused by bacteria and is therefore treated with antibiotics and other supportive measures.
By practising good hygiene and taking steps to prevent infections, you can reduce your risk of developing septicaemia and other serious medical conditions. If you experience any symptoms of septicaemia, it is important to seek urgent medical care immediately to avoid any complications.
- Smith DA, Nehring SM. Bacteremia. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 [cited 2023 Sep 7]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441979/
- Mahapatra S, Heffner AC. Septic shock (sepsis) [Internet]. National Library of Medicine. StatPearls Publishing; 2019. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430939/
- Gyawali B, Ramakrishna K, Dhamoon AS. Sepsis: the Evolution in Definition, Pathophysiology, and Management. SAGE Open Medicine [Internet]. 2019 Mar 21;7(7). Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6429642/
- Powe NR, Jaar B, Furth SL, Hermann J, Briggs W. Septicemia in dialysis patients: incidence, risk factors, and prognosis. Kidney Int. 1999 Mar;55(3):1081–90. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10027947/