How Do You Get Sepsis? It's Shockingly Common


When Oscar-winning actress and mental health advocate Patty Duke died on Tuesday, the news was disturbing in more ways than one. Naturally news of an unexpected death is always sad, but the news that Duke died of sepsis from a ruptured intestine had many wondering, how do you get sepsis? Not to mention, what exactly is sepsis and how will I know if I have it?

Sepsis has not been a commonly revealed cause of death, according to Thomas Heymann, executive director of Sepsis Alliance. Heymann told the Huffington Post,

The fact that they said Patty Duke’s cause of death was sepsis is relatively new. It very often would have been left as a complication of surgery or an infection, but it’s not a complication — it’s sepsis.

The Center for Disease Control defines sepsis as, "the body’s overwhelming and life-threatening response to an infection which can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death."

Essentially any type of infection can cause sepsis, whether it's a skin infection, a urinary tract infection, a lung infection (like pneumonia) or even appendicitis. Any infection that causes germs to multiply in the body can cause sepsis. Sepsis kills about 258,000 Americans per year, and leaves survivors suffering from side effects for years after. So why don't we know more about sepsis?

A patient is examined with a breast ultrasound in the Radiology ward of the General Hospital where 21 services are offered in Port-au-Prince, on May 7, 2015, . The General Hospital building, most of it destroyed in the January 12, 2010, is still under construction and reportedly will not be finished until 2017. AFP PHOTO/HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite the severity of sepsis (the CDC cites sepsis as the ninth leading cause of disease-related deaths in America), less than half of the Americans who took an online survey in 2015 commissioned by the Sepsis Alliance had heard of it. 47 percent of Americans asked had heard of sepsis, while 86 percent had heard of Ebola and 76 percent had heard of malaria — two diseases which are incredibly uncommon in North America.

So how do doctors diagnose it? How to you actually develop sepsis and what should you look for symptoms-wise? Here is what you should know.


There are a combination of symptoms for sepsis. Some of the most common to watch for are:

  • S-hivering, fever, or very cold
  • E-xtreme pain or general discomfort
  • P-ale or discolored skin
  • S-leepy, difficult to wake up, confused
  • "I- feel like I might die"
  • S-hortness of breath

These symptoms can coincide with regular signs of infection like vomiting, diarrhea and sore throat.

Who Can Get Sepsis?

Staff nurse Heike cares for newborn babies laying in their beds at the St. Elisabeth and St. Barbara hospital in Halle, eastern Germany, on January 2, 2012. In the year 2011, 1863 babies were born at the hospital. AFP PHOTO / WALTRAUD GRUBITZSCH GERMANY OUT (Photo credit should read WALTRAUD GRUBITZSCH/AFP/Getty Images)

While anyone can get sepsis, certain people are at a higher risk.

  • Babies and young children
  • People with weakened immune systems
  • Elderly people
  • Those suffering from such chronic illnesses as AIDS, cancer, diabetes, kidney or liver disease
  • People with severe burns or wounds

How Can Sepsis Be Treated?

Former Tuberculosis affected patient Ashley McQuire receives his medication from a nurse at the Tshepong Hospital Tubercolosis ward on March 12, 2015 in Klerksdorp. He is one of the first patients to have survived Extra Drugs Resistant (XDR) TB and he will leave the facility at the end of March. AFP PHOTO / MUJAHID SAFODIEN (Photo credit should read MUJAHID SAFODIEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Doctors treat sepsis in hospital with antibiotics. Their goal is to keep vital organs working and maintain normal blood pressure as well as blood oxygen level.

How Can I Prevent Sepsis?

  • Get vaccinated
  • Practice good hygiene
  • Clean your wounds

As with all illnesses, awareness and vigilance are key. Pay attention to your body, be extra cautious with wounds, and keep your hands clean.

Although sepsis is a fairly common problem in patients with infections, it's time the public started researching the issue for itself and reading up on all the literature out there from medical experts. Perhaps it will also shed a little more light on Patty Duke's final days.