Septic shock is a serious condition that occurs when a body-wide infection leads to dangerously low blood pressure.
Bacteremic shock; Endotoxic shock; Septicemic shock; Warm shock
Septic shock occurs most often in the very old and the very young. It may also occur in people with weakened immune systems.
Any type of bacteria can cause septic shock. Fungi and (rarely) viruses may also cause the condition. Toxins released by the bacteria or fungi may cause tissue damage. This may lead to low blood pressure and poor organ function. Some researchers think that blood clots in small arteries cause the lack of blood flow and poor organ function.
The body has a strong inflammatory response to the toxins that may contribute to organ damage.
Risk factors for septic shock include:
- Diseases of the genitourinary system, biliary system, or intestinal system
- Diseases that weaken the immune system, such as AIDS
- Indwelling catheters (those that remain in place for extended periods, especially intravenous lines and urinary catheters and plastic and metal stents used for drainage)
- Long-term use of antibiotics
- Recent infection
- Recent surgery or medical procedure
- Recent use of steroid medications
- Solid organ or bone marrow transplantation
Septic shock can affect any part of the body, including the heart, brain, kidneys, liver, and intestines. Symptoms may include:
- Cool, pale arms and legs
- High or very low temperature, chills
- Little or no urine
- Low blood pressure, especially when standing
- Rapid heart rate
- Restlessness, agitation, lethargy, or confusion
- Shortness of breath
- Skin rash or discoloration
Exams and Tests
Blood tests may be done to check for:
- Infection around the body
- Low blood oxygen level
- Disturbances in the body's acid-base balance
- Poor organ function or organ failure
Other tests may include:
- A chest x-ray to look for pneumonia or fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema)
- A urine sample to look for infection
Additional studies, such as blood cultures, may not become positive for several days after the blood has been taken, or for several days after the shock has developed.
Septic shock is a medical emergency. In most cases, people are admitted to the intensive care unit of the hospital.
Treatment may include:
- Breathing machine (mechanical ventilation)
- Drugs to treat low blood pressure, infection, or blood clotting
- Fluids given directly into a vein (intravenously)
The pressure in the heart and lungs may be checked. This is called hemodynamic monitoring. This can only be done with special equipment and intensive care nursing.
Septic shock has a high death rate. The death rate depends on the patient's age and overall health, the cause of the infection, how many organs have failed, and how quickly and aggressively medical therapy is started.
Respiratory failure, cardiac failure, or any other organ failure can occur. Gangrene may occur, possibly leading to amputation.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Go directly to an emergency department if you develop symptoms of septic shock.
Prompt treatment of bacterial infections is helpful. However, many cases of septic shock cannot be prevented.
Jones AE, Kline JA. Shock. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2013:chap 6.
Rivers EP. Approach to the patient with shock. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 106.
Munford RS. Severe sepsis and septic shock. In: Fauci AS, Harrison TR, eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. 17th ed. New York, NY: McGraw Hill; 2008:chap 265.
Last reviewed 2/8/2014 by Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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