Managing The Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Experience: A Proactive Guide for Patients and Families

Sepsis, Severe Sepsis, and Septic Shock

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Sepsis, Severe Sepsis, and Septic Shock

Sepsis describes a syndrome that occurs when severe infection results in critical illness and affects 750,000 Americans annually. Sepsis occurs when a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection causes a significant response from the body’s immune system, causing a high heart rate, fever, or fast breathing. Severe sepsis develops when the infection causes organ damage. Septic shock is the most severe form in which the infection causes low blood pressure, resulting in damage to multiple organs. About three in every 10 patients with severe sepsis, and half of those with septic shock, die in the hospital.

Consider asking the following questions:

“Does my loved one have sepsis or septic shock?”

“Do we know what organism is causing the infection in my loved one?”

“Do we know where the infection came from?”

“How well are my loved one’s organs working?”

Antibiotics and intravenous (IV) fluids are two of the most important treatments for sepsis. Studies have shown that delays in receiving the right antibiotics can double the risk of death. Patients are usually started on antibiotics that treat many different types of bacteria—“broad-spectrum antibiotics”—until test results are available to help physicians select antibiotics that treat the specific bacteria causing the
illness—“narrowing antibiotics”. These tests are often referred to as “cultures”, where bodily fluids such as blood, urine, and phlegm, are sent to the laboratory to identify disease-causing bacteria. Preliminary results from cultures may be available within 24 to 48 hours; final results from these tests often take several days.

Patients with sepsis often require many liters of IV fluids. In patients with septic shock, however, IV fluids may not be enough to keep their blood pressure in a safe range. In those cases, patients may need a central venous catheter in order to receive specific medicines to increase blood pressure.

This Intensive Care Unit (ICU) guide for patients and families is intended to provide general information about adult ICUs. The guide is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for the advice or counsel of one’s personal healthcare provider.