When the news broke on Tuesday morning that actress and activist Patty Duke had died at 69, many fans were probably expecting that cancer or heart failure was to blame. But sepsis? According to The Huffington Post, only 47 percent of Americans are even aware of sepsis. But Patty Duke's cause of death shows that sepsis is something that everyone should be talking about, because knowing what sepsis is and how it's caused could mean the difference between life and death.

Sepsis is the body's reaction to an infection. It can lead to organ failure, tissue damage, or death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that having a chronic illness or a weakened immune system, or being very young or old can elevate one's risk for sepsis, but it can happen to anyone. Sepsis can be caused by serious infections like pneumonia or appendicitis, but it can also be caused by relatively minor infections like a scrape or a cut, or even a urinary tract infection. They've also developed a terrifying acronym to remember the warning signs: "SEPSIS" teaches patients to be on the lookout for Shivering or fever; Extreme pain or general discomfort; Pale or discolored skin; Sleepy, difficult to wake up, or confused; “I feel like I might die;” and Shortness of breath.

That's right, one of the warning signs of sepsis is the feeling of impending doom. If these warning signs are present, patients are urged to go to the emergency room immediately, and it's important to use the phrase "I am concerned about sepsis," as it can be hard to diagnose in the early stages (many symptoms can also present with other conditions). Once diagnosed, sepsis is treated first by dealing with the underlying infection, then by addressing any complications it's caused, if necessary. Breathing machines, dialysis, or removal of damaged tissue may be needed in advanced cases.

There are over 1 million cases of sepsis per year, according to the CDC, and it kills over 258,000 Americans annually. Those who survive can recover completely, but permanent organ damage can also occur. So why are so many people unaware of a condition that's so common and so dangerous? While it's tragic that Duke was taken from us so early, and in such a painful way, at least some good willl come from her death; people are now starting to talk about sepsis, and more awareness could lead to fewer preventable deaths.

While it's good to know the warning signs of sepsis, it's even more important to prevent it in the first place, and a lot simpler. Preventing sepsis simply means preventing infection. So next fall, when some conspiracy theorist at work is yammering on about how they think that the flu vaccine is just a way for the government to control us, remind them that the flu is an infection, and if they like their kidneys the way they are, getting vaccinated is a great way to keep them from shutting down due to sepsis. Practicing good hygiene and keeping wounds clean (things everyone should be doing anyway) also prevent infection. I'm sorry if that was scary to sit through, but we're all safer now that we know more about sepsis. Now let's all go wash our hands.