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Sepsis is a complication of an infection that’s linked to more than 250,000 deaths each year.  U.S. health officials report that many cases of life-threatening sepsis could be recognized and treated long before it causes severe illness or death.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have declared sepsis a medical emergency, warning that the disease can be life-threatening, but is treatable if caught in time.

Six of the key signs and symptoms of sepsis are shivering, fever, or feeling very cold; extreme pain or discomfort; clammy or sweaty skin; confusion or disorientation; shortness of breath; and a high heart rate.  Between one to three million people in the United States are diagnosed with sepsis every year.  The prognosis for the condition is very good if caught early but mortality rises to 25 to 30 percent for severe sepsis and 40 to 70 percent in cases where septic shock occurs.

Some prevention tactics include vaccination against pneumonia, which is a disease that often leads to Sepsis, washing hands to prevent spread of germs, and a general increase in awareness about the disease.

While the deaths this year of actress Patty Duke and boxing legend Muhammad Ali (and Muppets creator Jim Henson in 1990) have brought attention to sepsis, fewer than half of Americans know what the condition is, according to Thomas Heymann, executive director of the Sepsis Alliance.  Patients with infections who are most likely to develop sepsis are aged 65 and older, less than 1 year old, people with weakened immune systems and those with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes.

Researchers from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that about 70 percent of patients with sepsis had used health care services recently or had chronic diseases that required regular medical care.  According to the CDC report, that meant that there were many opportunities for health care providers to intercept sepsis along its potentially deadly course.

Health care providers play a critical role in preventing sepsis.  It’s also essential to educate patients and their families about the need to prevent infections, manage chronic health conditions and seek immediate medical care if an infection doesn’t improve.  The CDC had additional advice for health care providers:  Know the signs and symptoms of sepsis.  If sepsis is suspected, order tests to determine if an infection is present, where it is and what caused it.  Start antibiotics and other recommended medical care immediately.

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