1. Health
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Symptoms of Sepsis in the Elderly

This dangerous condition requires immediate medical attention

By

Updated May 19, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Sepsis is a serious systemic response to an infection. Basically, the entire body is experiencing an inflammation response. "Blood poisoning" or "septicemia" are terms that are also used by some to refer to sepsis, although they really mean that is infection in the bloodstream, while "sepsis" describes the response to that infection.

It is an extremely dangerous condition, requiring urgent medical attention. Each year, about 90,000 people in the US die from septic shock. Elderly people account for 65% of sepsis cases –- people over 65 are 13 times more likely to have sepsis than younger people.

What Are The Symptoms of Sepsis?

The first clue that someone might have sepsis is if they have a known or suspected infection. If infection is present (even if it is being treated) and the following symptoms occur, it is time to take action and see a doctor immediately.

If you are at home, the following symptoms are easily measured. The criteria says that the person needs to have at least two of the following symptoms for sepsis to be strongly suspected, but in the case of elderly people, the presence of one of these symptoms probably warrants a call to the doctor:

Tachycardia: This means the heart is beating faster than normal. A heart rate over 90 beats/minute is considered "tachycardia" in the elderly. To measure this, make sure the person sits still for a couple of minutes before starting to count beats, using a stopwatch or watch with a second hand.

Abnormal Body Temperature: This means that the person either has a fever (above 100.4 degrees F) or low body temperature, called "hypothermia" (lower than 96.8 degrees F).

Rapid Breathing: This is defined as more than 20 breaths per minute while the person is sitting still.

In addition to the above symptoms, a healthcare provider will also suspect sepsis if they find that the patient has:

Reduced PaCO2 Level: This means partial pressure of carbon dioxide in arterial blood.

Abnormal White Blood Cell Count: This is a white blood cell count that is either high, low, or composed of >10% band cells.

Additional Symptoms

The above symptoms guide the doctors when trying to determine if the person has sepsis. However, depending on what caused the infection and how long it has progressed, the following symptoms can also be present:

  • Weakness
  • Chills, which may even cause shaking
  • Confusion
  • A blue, mottled or "dusky" color to the skin

Septic Shock

If sepsis has become worse, the person may develop "septic shock," which is define as low blood pressure that does not respond to treatment. This is a very dangerous condition that has a mortality rate of 40 to 60%.

Bottom Line

Sepsis is a very serious condition. Elderly people, especially those with other health problems, are at additional risk for harmful complications of sepsis.

Again, if any of the symptoms listed are present and the person also has an infection, see a doctor right away. The faster that the person with sepsis is treated, the better the chances are for recovery.

Sources:

Beers, Mark H. Merck Manual of Medical Information, 2nd Ed. New York: Pocket Books; 2003, pp. 1118-1119.

Martin, GS, Mannino, DM, Moss, M. The effect of age on the development and outcome of adult sepsis. Critical Care Medicine. January 2006; Volume 34, Issue 1, pp 15-21.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.

We comply with the HONcode standard
for trustworthy health
information: verify here.