Diagnosing sepsis can be difficult because its signs and symptoms can be caused by other disorders. Doctors often order a battery of tests to try to pinpoint the underlying infection.
A sample of your blood should be drawn from two distinct sites and tested for:
- Evidence of infection
- Clotting problems
- Abnormal liver or kidney function
- Impaired oxygen availability
- Electrolyte imbalances
Other laboratory tests
Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may also want to run tests on one or more of the following bodily fluids:
- Urine. If your doctor suspects that you have a urinary tract infection, he or she may want your urine checked for signs of bacteria.
- Wound secretions. If you have a wound that appears infected, testing a sample of the wound's secretions can help show what type of antibiotic might work best.
- Respiratory secretions. If you are coughing up mucus (sputum), it may be tested to determine what type of germ is causing the infection.
If the site of infection is not obvious, your doctor may order one or more of the following imaging tests:
- X-ray. Using low levels of radiation, X-rays are good for visualizing problems in your lungs.
- Computerized tomography (CT). Infections in your appendix, pancreas or bowels are easier to see on CT scans. This technology takes X-rays from a variety of angles and combines them to depict cross-sectional slices of your body's internal structures.
- Ultrasound. This technology uses sound waves to produce real-time images on a video monitor. Ultrasound may be particularly useful to check for infections in your gallbladder or ovaries.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRIs may be helpful in identifying soft tissue infections, such as abscesses within your spine. This technology uses radio waves and a strong magnet to produce cross-sectional images of your internal structures.
Early, aggressive treatment boosts your chances of surviving sepsis. People with severe sepsis require close monitoring and treatment in a hospital intensive care unit. If you have severe sepsis or septic shock, lifesaving measures may be needed to stabilize breathing and heart function.
A number of medications are used in treating sepsis. They include:
Antibiotics. Treatment with antibiotics should begin immediately, within the first six hours or earlier. Initially you'll receive broad-spectrum antibiotics, which are effective against a variety of bacteria. The antibiotics are administered intravenously (IV).
After learning the results of blood tests, your doctor may switch to a different antibiotic that's more appropriate against the particular bacteria causing the infection.
- Vasopressors. If your blood pressure remains too low even after receiving intravenous fluids, you may be given a vasopressor medication, which constricts blood vessels and helps to increase blood pressure.
Other medications you may receive include low doses of corticosteroids, insulin to help maintain stable blood sugar levels, drugs that modify the immune system responses, and painkillers or sedatives.
People with severe sepsis usually receive supportive care including oxygen and large amounts of intravenous fluids. Depending on your condition, you may need to have a machine help you breathe or another to provide dialysis for kidney failure.
Surgery may be needed to remove sources of infection, such as collections of pus (abscesses).