Biting your nails won’t just give you ragged edges. It could also put you at risk for sepsis, a serious and potentially life-threatening complication of an infection.
That’s what recently happened to a 28-year-old British man who started getting flu-like symptoms after tearing off a tiny bit of skin while nibbling on his nail. And things only went downhill from there. Thankfully he survived, but not everyone is as lucky. Recently fans learned that ‘Chicago Fire’ actress DuShon Monique Brown, who passed away in March 2018, died from sepsis from an unknown origin. Of the roughly one million Americans who get sepsis each year, approximately 250,000 people die.
If it seems like you’ve heard more about the condition recently, it’s not your imagination. The number of sepsis cases per year has been on the rise in America, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH). Some medical experts say this is due in part to an uptick in drug-resistant bacteria. That said, it’s pretty important that you know a bit about sepsis so you can seek medical assistance should you or a loved one start displaying symptoms. Consider this your quick guide.
What is sepsis, and how is it different from a regular infection?
Most of us think that sepsis is a type of infection. But it’s technically a condition that occurs when the body launches an extreme response to an infection—bacterial, viral, or fungal—that you already have. “It’s not a disease caused by a specific agent,” explainsDavid Cutler, MD, family medicine physician at Providence St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “So unlike strep throat or bacterial meningitis, no single cause for sepsis exists.”
If untreated, sepsis can lead to septic shock, when your blood pressure drops and your heart gets weak. That’s when the situation can become deadly.
What causes sepsis?
Sepsis forms when an infection that you already have triggers an intense immune system reaction, which sends harmful inflammatory chemicals into the bloodstream. The chemicals can cause blood clots and leaky blood vessels, which can block the flow of blood to your organs and potentially cause them to shut down, according to the NIH.
Here’s where it gets freaky: It doesn’t take a major infection to cause a problem. “Sometimes minor infections progress and trigger a sepsis response. It can even be triggered when no infectious cause is found, which happens about half the time,” Dr. Cutler explains. Sepsis is almost as likely to strike from a simple skin infection as it is from more serious ones in places like the lungs, kidney, or gut. (Sepsis is most commonly caused by pneumonia, abdominal infections, urinary tract infections (UTIs), or skin infections.)
Anyone can get it sepsis, but you’re at much higher risk for the condition if you’re over 65, have a weakened immune system, or have a chronic medical condition (like diabetes, lung disease, kidney disease, or cancer). Babies under 12 months old are also more susceptible, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says.
What are the symptoms of sepsis?
There aren’t any universal signs of sepsis. But early on, many patients notice that they start to feel confused or disoriented. They might also begin feeling short of breath as a result of the body going into overdrive to fight off the infection, says Stephen Parodi, MD, an infectious disease expert for Kaiser Permanente. Other signs to pay attention to:
- Feeling like your heart is racing
- Having a fever, shivering, or feeling very cold.
- Extreme pain.
- Clammy or sweaty skin.
Sepsis symptoms usually take a day or two to develop after an infection forms, so you don’t need to freak out if cut your finger and then just so happen to develop a fever an hour later. “If someone were to scratch his or her finger at 2:00 PM, they would not be septic at 3:00 PM,” says Glenn Hardesty, DO, an emergency medicine physician with Texas Health Resources. “Conversely, if you were to have a urinary tract infection on Sunday that progressed despite treatment, he or she could be in septic shock on Tuesday.”
Ask your healthcare provider, “Could this infection be leading to sepsis?”
What should I do if I think I have sepsis?
A mild, run-of-the-mill infection usually won’t cause severe symptoms, Dr. Parodi says. So if you notice any signs of sepsis or you have an infection that seems to be getting worse instead of better, you should seek emergency medical attention right away.
Don’t be afraid to be proactive either. Sepsis can progress quickly, so it’s important to be specific and direct about your concerns. Ask your healthcare provider, “Could this infection be leading to sepsis?” The faster you start treatment, the sooner you’ll recover, Dr. Hardesty says.
How is sepsis treated?
Sepsis is usually diagnosed through blood tests that check your white blood cell count and look for other signs of infection or organ damage, according to the CDC.
If you have sepsis, you’ll be treated with antibiotics to fight off the infection. Depending on how far the sepsis has progressed, you might also be given oxygen or IV (intravenous) fluids to keep enough blood flowing to your organs and prevent a dangerous drop in blood pressure. In very serious cases, you might also need a respirator, kidney dialysis, or surgery.
⚠️ Remember, sepsis can be deadly. ⚠️
The key to making a full recovery is getting help as soon as possible. “We know that early treatment makes a big difference. Seeing your physician or emergency department early is important and can save your life,” Dr. Parodi says.