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Septic shock FAQs

A life-threatening medical condition in which an infection triggers an unwanted reaction from the body is referred to as septic shock, a complication of sepsis accompanied by organ failure and dangerously low blood pressure. It requires rapid emergency treatment to prevent death.

What is septic shock?

Septic shock is the third stage of sepsis, which occurs when something goes wrong with the response of the body's defence system to a new infection. Toxins caused by infection trigger the release of chemicals that cause inflammation. These chemicals help the immune system to fight infection but also have less desirable effects including widening (dilation) of blood vessels and the formation of blood clots within the organs of the body. This results in damage to the body's own tissues and organs - including the kidneys, heart, lungs and brain - so that these organs fail to work properly.

As the condition progresses a vicious cycle develops:

  • The heart will have to work harder to pump blood, but bacterium toxins can also reach the heart and make it weaker. The weakened heart will struggle to pump blood to other organs as blood pressure drops from the dilated vessels, and blood will no longer reach vital organs.
  • A waste product known as lactic acid is released when tissues do not receive enough blood, making the blood more acidic and contributing to the possibility of organ failure.
  • Fluid can leak from blood vessels into surrounding tissues, and if this occurs in the lungs, breathing becomes more difficult.
  • The kidneys can struggle to excrete urine, so waste products can accumulate in the blood.
  • As blood clots continue to form, they can eventually deplete the blood-clotting proteins in blood and excessive bleeding can occur.

Sepsis is referred to as severe sepsis in the second stage if one or more organs fail, or there is inadequate blood flow. It is known as septic shock in the third stage if it progresses further and blood pressure drops to a dangerously low level despite receiving treatment with fluids. Once this happens, multiple organ failures of the lungs, kidney, liver and brain can quickly follow, leading to death.

Of the three stages, septic shock carries the highest risk of organ failures and other complications - and it can be fatal. People who survive septic shock often have long-term health problems after they recover.

What causes septic shock?

The microbes that can cause an infection that leads to septic shock include bacteria, viruses and fungi such as candida, but most infections are caused by bacteria. The infection can start as:

Respiratory, abdominal and urinary infections are the most common causes of sepsis and septic shock, but there are many others, including cellulitis or cuts in the skin, and meningitis. The infection can be contained to a part of the body or spread through the bloodstream.

WebMD Medical Reference

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