How To Understand Blood Poisoning (Septicaemia)


What is septicaemia?

Septicaemia - often referred to as 'blood poisoning' or 'sepsis' - is a potentially life threatening infection that is caused when large amounts of invasive organisms get into the blood stream. This serious condition affects thousands of people every year all over the world.

Although septicaemia can be a fatal condition most people who are treated quickly enough will recover. This wasn't always the case. Up until Joseph Lister (1827-1912 ), introduced aseptic surgery, the death rate from septicaemia after operations was very high. In later times, the discovery of anti-biotics also helped to reduce the fatalities.

So what are the main causes of septicaemia and why does this condition develop?

Large numbers of bacteria in the blood stream is one cause of septicaemia.
Large numbers of bacteria in the blood stream is one cause of septicaemia. | Source
Normally white blood cells are more than capable of fighting off infection and preventing septicaemia and sepsis developing.
Normally white blood cells are more than capable of fighting off infection and preventing septicaemia and sepsis developing. | Source

The main causes of septicaemia

Within the blood there are millions of white blood cells of various kinds that successfully defend the body against invasion for most of the time. However, there could be occasions where the amount of infection causing organisms are just too numerous for the white blood cells to cope with. In these circumstances, septicaemia can develop.

Before we go onto look at the causes here are the definitions of the two terms used - sometimes interchangeably - 'septicaemia' and 'sepsis'. Septicaemia generally means a build up of bacteria or other pathogens in the blood stream itself. Normally with an infection in the body it is confined to one area where the invading organisms are killed by the white blood cells. However, if this infection gets out of control, it can enter the blood stream - septicaemia - and then potentially spread to other areas of the body - this is known as sepsis.

Main Causes:

NHS UK gives a number of causes that can lead to the development of septicaemia and sepsis:

  • Lung infections - in particular pneumonia
  • Appendicitis - this can lead to septicaemia and sepsis if the appendix ruptures before surgery can take place.
  • Peritonitis - this is a major inflammation of the lining of the digestive system and is itself a serious condition.
  • Bone infections - for example osteomyelitis.
  • Infections of the central nervous system - for example meningitis, encephalitis.
  • Heart infections - for example endocarditis.
  • After surgical operations.
  • Urinary tract infections - usually when the kidneys are also infected.

In most cases of septicaemia the person usually has a medical condition present or another situation where their immune system is not working to full strength.

The organisms most likely to lead to septicaemia are:

  • Pneumococcus - there are many types of this organism. Two of the main conditions they cause are pneumonia and meningitis as well as septicaemia.
  • Klebsiella - these organisms are commonly found in the human digestive system where they do no harm. However, if they move into other areas they can be responsible for causing very serious - even fatal - infections such as wound infections, meningitis and pneumonia as well as septicaemia.
  • Pseudomonas - people can be carriers of this bacteria without it causing any harm. However, it can lead to serious infections that are hard to treat because pseudomonas has become resistant to many anti-biotics. Infections that it may cause are septicaemia as well as infection in wounds, the urinary tract and bone.
  • Escherichia Coli (E. coli) - commonly found in the digestive tract of human beings. This organism can cause serious infections apart from septicaemia. However, the most common infection caused by E. coli are urinary tract infections including cystitis. This organism can also cause inter-abdominal, intestinal infections and in young children (although rare) meningitis.
  • Staphylococcus - normally a cause of skin infections if this bacteria gets inside the body it can cause dangerous medical conditions including septicaemia. Other conditions it can cause inside the body are - pneumonia, osteomyelitis, and endocarditis.
  • Streptococcus - in addition to septicaemia this organism, when it reaches deep inside the body, can cause - pneumonia, meningitis, osteomyelitis and many other conditions.

Pseudomonas - just one of many bacteria responsible for septicaemia and sepsis.
Pseudomonas - just one of many bacteria responsible for septicaemia and sepsis. | Source

Signs and symptoms

There are only a few signs and symptoms of septicaemia. Although this condition can develop at home, frequently it is while people are in hospital that septicaemia occurs. This is especially true if a person has recently had surgery or had some form of catheter (tube) inserted into an area of the body. Catheters in particular can harbour various organisms and then introduce them directly into the body so by-passing one of the body's strongest defence mechanisms - the skin.

Septicaemia and sepsis signs and symptoms usually develop rapidly and include:

  • Heartbeat is very fast.
  • High temperature - over 38C (100.4F)
  • Breathing increases and becomes rapid.
  • Chills.
  • Nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhoea may occur in some people.
  • Confusion is also a frequent result of septicaemia/sepsis.

When septicaemia and/or sepsis is present this can lead to septic shock. This is a very serious, potentially fatal, condition that arises because of the immune system's reactions to fighting off large numbers of invading pathogens. When the body fights infection, inflammation develops due to infection-fighting chemicals. In septic shock inflammation reactions are far too numerous for the body to cope and the inflammatory chemicals - along with substances released by the bacteria - flood into the blood stream causing more infection. In addition, these chemicals cause blood pressure to drop dangerously low - death is not uncommon. Basically a person needs to be put on life support machines and given huge doses of antibiotics to try to clear all the body systems of infection and inflammation.

Symptoms of severe sepsis or septic shock include:

  • Low blood pressure.
  • Confusion or disorientation.
  • Diarrhoea.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Cold, clammy and pale skin.

Thankfully septicaemia is still a rare occurrence and when caught early enough is treated successfully. The concern for the future is - will there be a rise in septicaemia cases due to the anti-biotic resistance of many bacteria?

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Comments 22 comments

peachpurple profile image

peachpurple 4 years ago from Home Sweet Home

Another great hub to enhance my knowledge. Blood poisoning is such a serious matter. Voted up

Frank Atanacio profile image

Frank Atanacio 4 years ago from Shelton

thank you Seeker7 for these valueable hubs you've been producing Happy New Year :)

ChitrangadaSharan profile image

ChitrangadaSharan 4 years ago from New Delhi, India

Thanks seeker7, for this informative hub. I have heard about Septicaemia but this hub educated me further and since you have been in the medical profession, this information is dependable and accurate.

Thanks again for this useful article.

kashmir56 profile image

kashmir56 4 years ago from Massachusetts

Hi my friend great hub with great information. I just had an aunt die from this because it was not caught in time.

Vote up and more !!!

mary615 profile image

mary615 4 years ago from Florida

Wow, this is really scary! You did a great job explaining exactly what blood poisoning is; good research.

When I was a kid, I got an infected toe that I have scrapped, and I remember the doctor telling my parents that I had blood poisoning. I took antibiotics and got well after a time.

I voted this UP, etc.

Nellieanna profile image

Nellieanna 4 years ago from TEXAS

Thank you. That's very informative, Helen. My late husband had chronic heart problems, some quite serious, though he was doing OK. His death was the result of sepsis which came on rather suddenly and took him rather quickly. He was having a combination of problems simultaneously which blocked treatment of each other. He was 86.

Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

Gypsy Rose Lee 4 years ago from Riga, Latvia

Frightening but fascinating. My friend in Canada had a medical condition from which she had bad dairrhoea which resulted in septicaemia. She was sick for quite awhile but since then has recovered. Thanks for this informative hub. Passing it on.

Gypsy48 profile image

Gypsy48 4 years ago

My maternal grandmother died when my mom was 15 years old from blood poisoning in the 1940s. Very interesting and informative article. Voted up.

Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi peachpurple - glad that you enjoyed the hub and as always, many thanks for the visit!

Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Frank - Happy New Year to you as well - I look forward to reading your wonderful work in 2013!!

Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi ChitrangadaSharan, lovely to hear from you as always and glad that you enjoyed the hub. Many thanks as well for the lovely comment - thank you!

Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Tom, great to hear from you.

I'm sorry to hear that your aunt died and from septicaemia. It can travel so fast through the body and as you point out, if it isn't caught early enough the damage done is often irreversible.

Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi mary615, lovely to hear from you and glad that you enjoyed the hub! Yes, it can all start just from a straight forward infection - like you mention with your toe - but treated quickly enough and when the person/child is healthy, then it does usually clear up.

Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hello Nellieanna, lovely to hear from you.

That is very sad about your husband and unfortunately it is common with people who have a few medical issues to contend with. With the heart of course one of the problems is that the circulation can't get the white cells to infected areas quick enough, allowing time for organisms to get out of hand. In addition when some of the tissues don't receive the nutrients and oxygen needed for health - due to poor circulation - it just gives bacteria an ideal breeding ground. My Mum was the same. She was 64 when she died and basically it started with a perforated ulcer. Perotonitis set, leading to sepsis and she went into multi-organ failure, starting with her kidneys. They had carried out at least four operations to try and clear everything, but by that time her heart had, had enough and she had two heart attacks. I think at the end, we were in some ways, just glad to see her at peace and out of pain.

Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Rasma - hope you've had a nice start to 2013!!

That's a shame about your friend and I would suspect she would be feeling very ill for quite a few days. Some of the bugs that are in our gut and do no harm are very dangerous when they travel to other places - such as when a person has diarrhoea, they can then get into the body through other routes and cause havoc! I'm glad your friend did recover, although it's not an experience they will forget I would think!!

Many thanks for the vote up - always greatly appreciated!!

Nellieanna profile image

Nellieanna 4 years ago from TEXAS

Thank you, Helen. You've filled in a lot of blanks for me. I'm sorry to hear about your Mum, and so relatively young, too. That is so sad.

I fully understand that the conditions accompanying heart problems & sluggish circulation are likely to agitate infections which can lead to severe sepsis. How tragic when it happens.

So many things about the body are interrelated and can got awry. Even when we are careful.

Rosemay50 profile image

Rosemay50 4 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

Thank you for this very informative hub Helen. It is good to know the 'ins and outs' of these things and you explain them so well and make it easy to understand. Thank you for all the work you put into these great articles.

Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Nellieanna - thank you for responding and I agree that things can go awry even when great care is taken. Why this happens to some and yet others live to a great age when they abuse their health is a mystery but it happens!!

Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Rosemay, lovely to hear from you!! Glad that you enjoyed the hub and it's always a relief to know that people do understand them without having to stop every few seconds to look up a dictionary!!

Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Gypsy48, that was sad about your Grandmother and yes in the 1920s 30's, 40's and 50's the death rate was still very high from this condition. And for your Mum to lose her Mum at such a young age is tragic!

Glad that you found the hub interesting though and many thanks for the vote up!!

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Lady Wolfs 4 years ago

Nice hub. I really never knew what septicaemia was, and you did a great job providing information and making it easier to understand. There is no doubt that blood poisoning , high fever, and infection throughout the body would be very serious and frightening. Thank you so much for sharing this.

Voted up and useful!

Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Lady Wolfs, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub. Yes, this can be a very serious illness and people who have survived it tell a scary tale of how they felt during this time - very unpleasant!!

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