About Blood Poisoning
Blood poisoning is an infection that develops when there are bacteria present in the bloodstream. However, the infection does not actually have anything to do with poisoning, but the term blood poisoning is instead used to describe the condition of sepsis, septicemia, or bacteremia. Blood poisoning can be a fatal condition if it is left untreated because it can quickly progress to the stage of sepsis. Rapid diagnosis and treatment are required for cases of blood poisoning, but in order to do so, it is important first to understand the common risk factors and symptoms of blood poisoning. Here are some of the most common causes and symptoms of blood poisoning and what to do in such cases.
What are the Causes of Blood Poisoning?
Blood poisoning can occur when there is a bacterial infection in some other part of the body which enters the bloodstream. This presence of bacteria in the bloodstream is a condition known as septicemia or bacteremia. The terms septicemia, bacteremia, and sepsis are often used interchangeably, but they don’t exactly have the same meaning. (1)
Septicemia refers to the state of having bacteria in the bloodstream, which can then cause sepsis. Sepsis is the often life-threatening and severe state of infection if it is left untreated.
Regardless of what type of infection is present in the blood, be it bacterial, viral, or fungal, there is a potential that it can lead to sepsis. What’s more, these infectious microbes don’t necessarily need to be present in the bloodstream only to cause sepsis.
It is possible for such infections to develop in the urinary tract, abdomen, and the lungs. Sepsis can also happen in people who are hospitalized, where the risk of developing an infection is already quite high. (2)
Since blood poisoning develops once the bacteria enter your bloodstream in combination with another infection, you are unlikely to develop sepsis without having an infection present in the body first.
Common Causes of Blood Poisoning
Some of the common causes of infections that lead to sepsis include:
- Infected insect bite
- Abdominal infection
- Skin infection
- Infection of the central line, such as from chemotherapy catheter or dialysis catheter. (3)
- Infected teeth or dental extractions (4)
- Infection by drug-resistant bacteria
- Exposure of an open wound to the environment
- Exposure of a covered wound to bacteria during surgical recovery or not changing the surgical bandage regularly
- Urinary tract infection
- Kidney infection
While anyone can get blood poisoning and sepsis, but the risk is known to be the highest for:
- Older adults who are 65 years of age or above
- Infants and young children, especially those under the age of 1 year
- People with a weakened immune system
- People who have just had a surgical procedure
- People with chronic medical conditions such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, and cancer
Common Symptoms of Blood Poisoning
In many cases, the symptoms of blood poisoning are very similar to the signs of the flu or the common cold. These include:
- Chills and shivering
- Sudden fever with temperature ranging from moderate to high
- Fast heartbeat
- Irritability, especially in children
- Low energy levels, especially in children
- Rapid breathing
- Heart palpitations, it may feel like the heart skips a beat or is fluttering
Other common symptoms that may indicate sepsis include:
- Shortness of breath
- Disorientation or confusion
- Extreme pain or discomfort
- Sweaty or clammy skin
- Red spots of the skin that grow larger and starts looking like a big, purple bruise
- Organ failure
- Little to no urine production
Blood poisoning may lead to septic shock and respiratory distress syndrome. If the condition is not treated at the earliest, these complications of blood poisoning can even cause death or coma.
Can Blood Poisoning Be Diagnosed?
In most cases, it is challenging to diagnose blood poisoning yourself since the symptoms of this condition are similar to many other conditions, especially the common cold and the flu. The best way to find out if you have blood poisoning is to consult a doctor. The doctor will first perform a physical examination, including a temperature check, and also take your blood pressure.
If blood poisoning is suspected, then your doctor will run further diagnostic tests to look for symptoms of bacterial infection. Blood poisoning can be determined with the following tests:
- Blood count
- Blood oxygen levels
- Blood culture testing
- Clotting factor
- Chest X-ray
- Urine tests including urine culture
- Kidney function and electrolyte tests
Your doctor may observe some problems with kidney or liver functioning, including imbalances in electrolyte levels. If you have an open skin wound, then your doctor may take a sample of any fluids that are leaking out of the wound to check it for bacterial growth.
As a precaution, most doctors also recommend an imaging scan. These imaging tests may help detect an infection present in the body’s organs:
- MRI scan
- CT scan
If bacteria are found, then doctors will identify what type of bacteria is present to determine which antibiotic needs to be prescribed for clearing up the bacterial infection causing the blood poisoning.
What are the Treatment Options for Blood Poisoning?
Immediate treatment of blood poisoning is necessary to prevent the infection from spreading to your heart valves or other tissues. Once you have been diagnosed with blood poisoning, it is likely that you will receive treatment after being admitted to a hospital. If you are also experiencing symptoms of shock, then you might be admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU). Signs and symptoms of shock include:
- Rapid and weak pulse
- Low blood pressure
- Rapid and shallow breathing
You are going to receive fluids and oxygen intravenously in order to help maintain healthy blood pressure and also to get rid of the infection. Another major concern in immobilized patients is the development of blood clots. (5)
Sepsis is treated with hydration, usually with an intravenous line. Antibiotics that target the specific microbe causing the infection are prescribed. In some cases, medications may also be prescribed for temporarily supporting low blood pressure levels. These drugs are known as vasopressors.
If the resulting sepsis is serious enough to lead to multi-organ dysfunction, then the patient may need to be put on a ventilator, or they may even require temporary dialysis in case their kidneys have failed.
Can You Prevent Blood Poisoning?
Yes, it is very much possible to prevent blood poisoning by treating and preventing infections. Here are some generalized tips to lower the risk of developing blood poisoning:
- Take good care of any open wounds and cuts. Do not allow them to become an infection. Keep the injury site clean and treat it with antiseptic medication or as advised by your doctor.
- Remain updated on all your vaccines, especially pneumonia and flu vaccines.
- Do not ignore a toothache as a tooth infection can also cause blood poisoning. You should consult your dentist before the toothache ends up becoming a bigger problem.
- Visit a doctor for any ear and sinus infections. Don’t ignore them and think that they will eventually go away on their own.
- Be aware that the chance of an infection is very high after any medical treatment or surgery.
Conclusion: Recovery and Long-Term Outlook of Blood Poisoning
Blood poisoning can prove to be a fatal condition if it is not treated in a timely manner. Septic shock has a 50 percent mortality rate, and even after successful treatment, sepsis can still cause permanent damage. (6) The risk of future infections is also much greater in people who have had blood poisoning once.
In order to increase your chances of a full recovery, it is important that you follow your doctor’s instructions and treatment plan properly. Early and aggressive treatment in a hospital increases the chances of surviving sepsis. Most people will end up making a complete recovery from mild blood poisoning with no long-term complications.
- Angus, D.C. and Van der Poll, T., 2013. Severe sepsis and septic shock. N Engl J Med, 369, pp.840-851.
- Edmond, M.B., Wallace, S.E., McClish, D.K., Pfaller, M.A., Jones, R.N. and Wenzel, R.P., 1999. Nosocomial bloodstream infections in United States hospitals: a three-year analysis. Clinical infectious diseases, 29(2), pp.239-244
- Powe, N.R., Jaar, B., Furth, S.L., Hermann, J. and Briggs, W., 1999. Septicemia in dialysis patients: incidence, risk factors, and prognosis. Kidney international, 55(3), pp.1081-1090.
- Ngapeth-Etoundi, M., Ela, G.A., Itoua, E.S. and Obounou, A., 2001. Septicemia of dental origin and post-extraction coma. Apropos of 3 cases. Odonto-stomatologie tropicale= Tropical dental journal, 24(94), pp.19-22.
- Corrigan Jr, J.J., Ray, W.L. and May, N., 1968. Changes in the blood coagulation system associated with septicemia. New England Journal of Medicine, 279(16), pp.851-856.
- Schoenberg, M.H., Weiss, M. and Radermacher, P., 1998. Outcome of patients with sepsis and septic shock after ICU treatment. Langenbeck’s archives of surgery, 383(1), pp.44-48.