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Understanding a Common Infection Many People Don’t Know

Tuesday, June 07, 2016 9:37 AM

The recent death of boxer champion Muhammad Ali and actress Patty Duke has raised questions and awareness about a common illness that kills nearly 260,000 Americans every year. But fewer than half of Americans have ever heard of this illness, according to a 2015 online survey. 


According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sepsis is the body’s “overwhelming and life-threatening response” to an infection that can lead to organ failure or even death. While many people recover from sepsis, some survivors may experience life-changing complications.

Becky Smith, MD, Infectious Diseases at NorthShore, says that sepsis can strike anyone regardless of how minor or major an infection may be. Those at highest risk typically include:

  • People with compromised immune systems or chronic illnesses like cancer, AIDS and diabetes
  • Infants and young children
  • Elderly people

Because your body is dealing with an infection, you may experience some common infection-like symptoms such as diarrhea or vomiting. Sepsis also prompts a combination of other symptoms as reflected in the acronym below from the CDC:

S—Shivering, fever, or very cold
E—Extreme pain or general discomfort
P—Pale or discolored skin
S—Sleepy, difficult to rouse, confused
I—"I feel like I might die"
S—Short of breath

If you feel you have sepsis, it’s important to go to the emergency room right away and for evaluation. Sepsis is treated with antibiotics, though patients may also receive oxygen and intravenous fluids.

Several steps can be taken to protect against sepsis. First, speak with your doctor about your concerns. It’s also helpful to get vaccinated against the flu, pneumonia and other infections. Clean and protect any scrapes or wounds you may have. Lastly, regular bathing and hand washing can go a long way to guarding against infection.

You can learn about sepsis more at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.