When an infection in one part of the body reaches the bloodstream, this is known as sepsis, or acute blood infection. It occurs most often when a person's immune system is weakened, either through illness, during treatment for diseases such as cancer or AIDS, or after surgery. Because a blood infection can be life threatening, it's important to know the signs and symptoms and have them evaluated promptly.
Before sepsis sets in, a patient with an infection can face bacteraemia, which is the presence of bacteria in the bloodstream. Symptoms of bacteraemia, which can come on suddenly, include a high fever, chills, nausea and vomiting, and a rapid heart rate. A blood culture can confirm bacteraemia. Treatment usually includes hospitalisation and intravenous antibiotics. If the condition goes untreated, it can lead to sepsis.
An accelerated heart rate and respiratory rate and either a high fever or a subnormal temperature are signs of sepsis. If you have any of these symptoms and you have a wound that you suspect may be infected, or you recently had surgery or dental procedures, or your immune system has been compromised in some way, you should contact a doctor immediately.
If sepsis advances, symptoms of blood infection can include mottled skin (reddish colour and spotted in patches throughout the body), abnormal heart rhythms and decreased urination. These are all serious symptoms and should never be ignored. If the blood infection has advanced, the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the liver, lungs, brain and other organs and muscles suffers, and your overall health will suffer too.
As sepsis progresses, your mental state can become affected. You may become confused, disoriented and agitated. You may also experience dizziness. By this time you've already likely experienced a fever and accelerated heart rate, so it's important to have someone with you who can answer questions about your medical history if you're unable to focus your thoughts.
Treatment for blood infections almost always calls for antibiotics and possibly vasopressors to raise your blood pressure if it has dropped to an unhealthy level. Prompt treatment is vital, because an estimated 15 per cent of severe sepsis patients die, according to the Mayo Clinic.