A British teenager who thought she just had tonsillitis nearly died before doctors discovered that she had a raging blood infection that was systematically poisoning all of her internal organs.
Jess Lewin, 19, of Plymouth, was diagnosed with sepsis, also known as septicemia or “blood poisoning.” Although triggered by an infection, sepsis is actually caused by the immune system itself, which overreacts to the infection by flooding the body with inflammation-promoting compounds. It is these immune compounds that damage the body’s organs and cause them to fail. Sepsis can also cause tissue death, producing gangrene.
In the most severe cases, sepsis proceeds to septic shock, which includes life-threatening plunges in blood pressure.
Induced coma for a month
“I felt so awful,” Lewin said. “By the end of the week, I was starting to feel dehydrated, dizzy and I had a lot of sickness and diarrhoea. It was getting progressively worse. I posted a status on Facebook asking my friends what they thought, but everyone just told me it was the flu.”
Eventually, her mother insisted on taking her back to the doctor, who sent her straight to the hospital. There she was given a CT scan, and doctors immediately put her under anesthesia for two emergency surgeries: one to remove her left ovary, which had gone septic, and another to insert a breathing tube. Doctors warned her parents that she might not survive.
Lewin was in an induced coma for four weeks. The sepsis had spread to her uterus and lungs.
When Lewin finally awoke, she had no memory of her time at the hospital, but could not ask questions because of her tracheostomy. It took another seven weeks of physical therapy before she could return home. She still becomes breathless and tired easily, and her hair has dramatically thinned.
As dangerous as a heart attack
The British National Health Service recently released new guidelines directing that sepsis be treated with the same urgency as heart attacks. All patients with a rash, high pulse or fever should be screened for sepsis, and any suspected cases should immediately be referred to a senior nurse or doctor.
Publication of the guidelines was moved up following the 2014 death from sepsis of William Mead due to health system failures.
With treatment, most people recover from mild sepsis. Because early treatment is so important, however, patients should not delay in seeking medical attention.
Although sepsis can be hard to distinguish from the flu, it does have a few telltale signs. Visit a hospital if you have a body temperature above 101 F or below 96.8 F that is accompanied by a heart rate above 90 beats per minute and a breathing rate above 20 breaths per minute.
If these symptoms are accompanied by abdominal pain, trouble breathing, abnormal heartbeat, dramatic drops in urine output or sudden changes in mental status, it may indicate that organ failure has already begun.
The risk of sepsis is higher from infections of the blood, kidneys, abdomen or lungs (pneumonia). Severe sepsis is more common in the very young or very old, the very sick, people with external or internal wounds or injuries, those with invasive devices such as catheters, and those with compromised immune systems.
Rates of sepsis in the United States are on the rise, perhaps due to the increasing prevalence of drug-resistant superbugs, an aging population, and increasing numbers of people on immune-suppressing drugs such as cancer treatment.
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