Septic shock occurs most often in the very old and the very young. It also occurs in people who have other illnesses, especially if they have a weakened immune system.
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, and 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 also produces a strong inflammatory response to the toxins. This inflammation may contribute to organ damage.
Blood tests may be done to check for infection, low blood oxygen level, disturbances in the body's acid-base balance, or poor organ function or organ failure.
A chest x-ray may show pneumonia or fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema).
A urine sample may show 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. Patients are usually 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)
There are new drugs that act against the extreme inflammatory response seen in septic shock. These may help limit organ damage.
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.
Calling your health care provider
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.
Vincent J, Septic Shock. In: Fink MP, Abraham E, Vincent J, Kochanek PM, eds. Textbook of Critical Care. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2005: chap 147.
Jones AE, Kline JA. Shock. In: Marx, JA, ed. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2009: chap 4.
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.
Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, David R. Eltz, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.