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Sepsis, a life-threatening condition, accounts for 11 million deaths worldwide every year but public awareness remains alarmingly low, a leading medical expert from a hospital in Abu Dhabi noted.
The serious condition takes place when the body fails to respond to an infection properly. The infection-fighting process then turns against the body, which causes extreme inflammation leading to organ malfunction, tissue damage, and even death if untreated.
Dr Ali Al Shidi, internal medicine consultant and vice-chair of the Internal Medicine Division at Sheikh Shakhbout Medical City (SSMC) in Abu Dhabi, in an interview elaborated on the condition, severity, symptoms and what community members can do to prevent this devastating condition.
“Sepsis arises when the body’s response to an infection damages its tissues and organs. If it's unrecognised in its early stages, sepsis can lead to septic shock, multi-organ failure, and even death,” Dr Al Shidi told Khaleej Times.
According to key facts published by the World Health Organisation, sepsis affects 49 million people every year resulting in 11 million deaths worldwide, which accounted for almost 20 per cent of all global deaths.
Dr Al Shidi underlined that sepsis can lead to death as a result of different infectious diseases too.
“This includes community-acquired infections, such as pneumonia caused by viral infections, the seasonal flu, Covid-19, Ebola, variable bacterial pneumonia, as well as other bacterial infections. Other causes include urinary tract, digestive system, and liver infections as well,” said Dr Al Shidi, a front-line physician during the Covid-19 pandemic.
He noted that hospital-acquired sepsis is more challenging as it is usually caused by superbugs, which are strains of bacteria that are resistant to several types of antibiotics.
“It is more complicated because it is usually associated with medical interventions, such as breathing machines tubes, bloodstream catheters, surgical wounds, prosthesis where source control is more challenging.”
Dr Al Shidi pointed out that septic shock is the most severe stage of infection.
“When sepsis reaches this stage, the inflammation can impact blood circulation and cause dangerously low blood pressure levels and organ failure. Septic shock is life-threatening and requires immediate emergency care, as it can have a profound effect on a patient’s chances of survival. Patients with septic shock require urgent admission to the intensive care unit where they usually receive blood pressure normalising medicine and organ support therapies, such as breathing machines and dialysis.”
He reiterated that sepsis is an emergency that needs immediate medical response.
“In patients experiencing extremely low levels of blood pressure, septic shock can impact the body’s ability to provide enough oxygen to the tissues and other elements necessary for survival. This can cause the heart, lungs, kidney and brain to malfunction and can lead to a state of shock, multiple organ failure, and death.”
Dr Al Shidi said that recognising the signs and symptoms could save lives.
“The main signs that could indicate that someone has sepsis include slurred speech or a feeling of confusion or disorientation, reduced interaction and poor oral intake for older people, rapid heart rate, extreme shivering or muscle pain, passing less or no urine all day, warm or sweaty skin, severe breathlessness, discoloured or mottled skin. As for the more severe stages of sepsis, such as septic shock, a patient could face difficulty standing up and experience extreme sleepiness. They might also experience major changes in their mental state, such as being extremely confused.”
Groups of people who are at higher risk include those with weak immune systems, people suffering from cancer, or kidney or liver disease, and those living with diabetes, especially if the condition is not managed well. People who are over 65 years old and children younger than 1 also have an increased risk of developing sepsis.
Dr Al Shidi noted that treatment is most effective when started early and significantly raises the likelihood of a patient’s recovery.
“Physicians typically administer antibiotics to address the underlying infection and use intravenous fluids to maintain blood flow to the organs and prevent dangerous drops in blood pressure. If blood pressure remains low, doctors will give patients a vasopressor, a drug used to narrow blood vessels to ensure enough blood flow gets to vital organs. To ensure patients diagnosed with sepsis respond to treatment, they are closely monitored. If organ failure occurs, supportive care, such as dialysis or mechanical ventilation, is delivered.”
In addition to practicing appropriate antibiotic use, Dr Al Shidi has given suggestions on what else patients and community members can do to prevent sepsis.
Stay up to date on vaccinations: This includes Covid-19, flu, chickenpox, pneumococcal, and other vaccines recommended for your age and health conditions. Vaccines can prevent or limit the severity of these conditions and reduce their potential to lead to sepsis.
Manage chronic illnesses: Keeping blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease and other conditions under control helps maintain your body’s strength and ability to fight off infections. A healthy diet also feeds your immune system and helps it function properly. Seeing your doctor regularly and seeking care for chronic conditions can reduce your risk of sepsis as well.
Practice good hygiene: Wash your hands using soap and water, or use hand sanitiser, especially after using the bathroom or blowing your nose, before eating, and after exposure to large groups or public places. Keep cuts clean and covered until they are healed.
Know the warning signs: These include high heart rate, low blood pressure, fever, chills, confusion, shortness of breath, extreme pain, and clammy skin. Sometimes people feel faint or dizzy as well.
Seek care early: Sepsis is a medical emergency. If you experience any of the warning signs, seek care immediately, especially if you have any of the risk factors described above.
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