Sepsis can be life-threatening, especially for anyone with a weakened immune system or a chronic illness. At a cost of almost $24 billion each year, sepsis has been named the most expensive in-patient cost in American hospitals as of 2014. Another scary statistic — 40 percent of patients diagnosed with severe sepsis die. Sepsis is said to kill 258,000 people in the United States every year. (1)
What is sepsis? It is a severe systemic infection that spreads via the bloodstream. Infection symptoms include a fever, rapid heart and breathing rates, and a high blood glucose level in a non-diabetic. Any infection can lead to sepsis if it has the right conditions to grow.
The good news is that there are many easy, natural ways to prevent sepsis (like good hand washing practices). Natural foods and supplements can also help boost your immune system. These immune boosters help prevent sepsis, or fight it faster. Let’s talk about how to spot a sepsis infection and how natural remedies can help you prevent it.
What is Sepsis?
For decades, there has been medical debate over the correct sepsis definition and criteria. According to the Sepsis Alliance, the definition of sepsis is either “the presence of pathogenic organisms or their toxins in the blood and tissues” (bacteria in blood) or “the poisoned condition resulting from the presence of pathogens or their toxins as in septicemia.” (2)
Is sepsis contagious? No, sepsis itself is not contagious. However, the germs that cause it are typically contagious, and can be passed directly, or indirectly, from person to person. Sepsis-causing pathogens can even survive for some time after a septic patient dies. (3) This is one of the reasons why hospitals can be such a common location for contracting sepsis. If hospital workers don’t practice essential, basic hand washing, the hospital can be even more dangerous.
What is septicemia? Septicemia is another term for a sepsis infection. The seriousness and symptoms can vary depending on the stage: sepsis, severe sepsis or septic shock. Sepsis happens when the infection reaches the bloodstream, causing blood poisoning and inflammation in the body. Severe sepsis is a further worsening of the sepsis infection. At this point, the infection in the blood can impact organ function, such as the brain, heart and kidneys. What is septic shock? This is the most severe sepsis level; blood pressure dips so low that it can cause respiratory, heart or other organ failure, stroke and even death. (4)
In the United States, sepsis is the leading cause of death in non-coronary intensive care units (ICUs). It’s the 10th leading cause of death overall. (5)
Common Sepsis Symptoms
Sepsis symptoms are not caused directly by the germs. They are caused by the chemicals that the body releases in response to the infection.
General signs and symptoms include: (6)
- Heart rate greater than 90 beats per minute
- Fast respiratory rate
- Altered mental state (confusion/coma)
- High blood glucose without diabetes
Those are the stage one sepsis symptoms. Again, there are technically three stages of sepsis: sepsis, severe sepsis, and septic shock. There are many other possible medical symptoms as sepsis gets worse. These include: a high white blood cell count, elevated plasma C-reactive protein, low oxygen level, low urine output, a high lactate level in the blood and very low blood pressure. (7)
To help spot the signs of sepsis, you can remember this acronym (8):
- S – Shivering, fever or very cold
- E – Extreme pain or discomfort, often described as “the worst ever”
- P – Pale or discolored skin
- S – Sleepy, difficult to rouse, confused
- I – “I feel like I might die”
- S – Short of breath
Noticing symptoms of sepsis early can prevent the body from going into septic shock, which can be life-saving.
Causes and Risk Factors
Any infection can lead to sepsis, but certain infections and their germs are more likely to cause it. Sepsis is most often associated with infections of the skin, gut, lungs (like pneumonia) and urinary tract (such as a kidney infection). Urosepsis complicates a urinary tract infection. Some germs that often cause sepsis include Staphylococcus aureus (staph), Escherichia coli (E. coli) and some types of Streptococcus (strep). (9) Fungi or protozoa, such as malaria, can also cause it. (10)
People who are at a greater risk for getting a sepsis blood infection include: (11)
- Those with compromised immune system due to illnesses like HIV, AIDS or cancer
- People taking drugs that suppress the immune system, such as steroids, and those used to prevent rejection of transplanted organs
- Very young children and babies (especially 2 years or younger)
- The elderly, especially if they have other health problems
- People who have recently been hospitalized and/or had invasive medical procedures
It’s not uncommon for sepsis to develop when someone is already a patient at a hospital. It is more likely to occur in hospital patients who recently had surgery, who have stayed in the hospital for a long period of time, and who have had a urinary catheter fitted. (12)
Conventional Diagnosis and Treatment
Unfortunately, there is currently no “sepsis test.” To diagnose sepsis, a doctor will typically run blood and urine tests. He or she may also take a swab of your throat, or a current wound. If any of these tests reveal an infection, and you also have the symptoms of sepsis, then a diagnosis of sepsis will likely be made. However, sometimes samples won’t reveal an infection that is present. Additional testing may be needed, such as an ultrasound. With this additional testing, doctors look for abnormal internal states, like bowel inflammation. (13)
For any septic infection, a conventional doctor will most likely have you admitted to the hospital, usually to the intensive care unit (ICU). Then antibiotics will be intravenously administered to your body. This is the most typical conventional treatment.
It’s also likely that you will receive a great deal of fluids intravenously. If your blood pressure is too low, then medication will be given to increase it. Oxygen may be given as well, or if lung failure is a concern, a breathing machine will be used. If there is kidney failure present, then dialysis is a common conventional treatment. (14)
The prognosis of sepsis depends on age, previous health history, overall health status, how quickly the diagnosis is made, and the type of organism causing the sepsis. For healthy people with no previous illness, the rate of death is said to be as low as about 5 percent. However, for elderly patients with poorly functioning immune systems and/or many illnesses, the likelihood of death is sadly much higher. For a patient like this with an advanced case of sepsis, the death rate may be up to 80 percent. (15)
7 Natural Tips for Prevention
Until scientists find an actual cure, early detection is the best bet for surviving sepsis. A 2006 study showed that the risk of death from sepsis increases by 7.6 percent with every hour that passes before treatment begins. (16) Always treat sepsis as a medical emergency and seek medical attention if you suspect you have it. In addition to seeking medical attention, below are some of the best natural ways to prevent and fight a sepsis infection.
1. Don’t Abuse Antibiotics
Are You at Risk for Antibiotic Resistance? Not abusing antibiotics is one of the best ways to reduce the rate of sepsis as a society. Antibiotics are needed at times to treat serious bacterial infections and certain life-threatening diseases. But, they’re not the proper, or only, treatment method for things like common viral infections, the common cold, most sore throats and the flu. I highly encourage you not to take antibiotics for common ailments like colds. Taking antibiotics when they’re not needed and not effective helps to create drug-resistant bacteria in your body. This will make a sepsis infection more likely and more dangerous if one occurs.
According to the CDC, the number of hospitalizations for sepsis more than doubled between 2000 and 2008 going from 621,000 in 2000 to 1,141,000 in 2008. One of the main reasons believed to explain this significant rise in sepsis patients is an increase in antibiotic resistance. This resistance occurs when an antibiotic is no longer able to resist or kill bacteria. (17)
2. Clean Hands
Clean hands don’t carry germs. It may sound too basic to be helpful, but keeping your own hands clean, and also making sure that your health providers wash their hands, is so important. Proper hand hygiene is often cited as the single most important procedure for preventing the transmission of antibiotic-resistant organisms (AROs) and infections in general. (18) You should wash your own hands on a regular basis. It’s especially important after using restrooms, and touching surfaces in hospitals and other public places.
The CDC says hand washing is like a “do-it-yourself” vaccine. Just wet, lather, scrub, rinse and dry. This simple acting of cleaning our hands is one of the best ways we can remove germs from our own hands. It helps us to avoid getting sick and also prevents the spread of germs. (19) When it come to the best ways to avoid contracting or spreading sepsis, hand washing is top of the list.
3. Proper Wound Care
Since even a tiny cut can spiral into sepsis, properly cleaning and caring for scrapes and other wounds is very important for preventing it. (20) If you’re under hospital care, prompt removal of IV lines and urinary catheters when they are no longer necessary can also help prevent infections that can lead to sepsis. (21)
4. Prevent Minor Infections
Our own immune system is the best natural defense against sepsis. One of the best ways to prevent it from occurring is to boost our immune system to prevent minor infections. (22)
Scientific studies have shown that homeopathy can help in the fight against sepsis. One study published in 2005 researched whether or not homeopathy can have an effect on the long-term outcome of critically ill patients suffering from severe sepsis. Researchers had 70 severe sepsis patients take either a homeopathic treatment or placebo every twelve hours during their stay in the ICU. The homeopathic treatment given each time was five globules at a 200c potency. The researchers evaluated survival after 30 and 180 days. After day 30, there was a “non-statistically significant trend of survival in favor of homeopathy.”
After 180 days, survival was statistically significantly higher in the homeopathy patients with no adverse effects. The researchers conclude that homeopathy may be a useful additional therapeutic treatment, especially for severely septic patients. (23)
Getting enough probiotics on a regular basis can help to both prevent and treat a sepsis infection. When good bacteria flourishes, it can fight off invading bacteria. Probiotics are bacteria that line your digestive tract and support your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and fight infection. Probiotics are crucial to your immune health since 80 percent of your entire immune system is in your digestive tract!
Multiple studies show that probiotics can go a long way in fending off sepsis. This is especially true for babies, who are more at risk for developing sepsis. A 2016 study published in Pediatrics and Neonatology showed that probiotic supplements can lower the risk of candida colonization and help to prevent invasive fungal sepsis in preterm newborns. (24)
I recommend supplementing with probiotics and also consuming probiotic-rich food on a regular basis. Some awesome probiotic foods include kimchi, coconut water kefir and kombucha.
6. Zinc and Selenium
When it comes to immune function, zinc and selenium are absolutely essential. Being low in one or both of these vital nutrients can compromise immunity. Then you have a greater risk for infections. A 2015 study published in the British Journal of Anaesthesia exposed human endothelial cells (what lines the blood and lymphatic vessels) to a range of zinc and selenium concentrations in conditions similar to sepsis. Oxidative stress and out of control inflammation are two telltale signs of sepsis’ unwanted presence in the body. The researchers found that “zinc and selenium concentrations were reduced in critically ill patients, with increased oxidative stress and inflammatory biomarkers, particularly in patients with sepsis.” (25)
So far studies point towards zinc and selenium supplementation as playing a therapeutic role in preventing and treating sepsis. (26) Eating zinc-rich foods and selenium-rich foods on a daily basis can help keep your immune system strong.
Propolis, aka “bee glue,” is a resin-like mixture that honey bees produce and use to fill gaps in their hives. An animal study published in 2011 in The Brazilian Journal of Infectious Diseases found that derivatives of propolis are a promising natural substance that could likely help in the prevention and treatment of septic shock. (27) Propolis is available as a natural supplement.
It’s important to remember that sepsis is a medical emergency. Every second counts, especially since the infection can spread quickly. There’s no one symptom of sepsis, but rather it has a combination of symptoms. Get immediate medical attention if you suspect that you have sepsis, especially if you already have another infection.
You should always consult your doctor before starting any natural treatment or combining conventional treatments with natural treatments.
Sepsis is a very serious health condition. It requires medical attention as soon as it is suspected. While experts and scientists work to find a cure, we can do our best to prevent it. Simple things like hand washing and proper wound care can protect you and your loved ones.
In addition to good hygiene, eat a healthy, whole foods diet rich in foods that boost the immune system. This is a smart defense against sepsis, and all kinds of other infections and diseases. Natural supplements like probiotics, zinc, selenium and propolis as well as homeopathy can help your immune system, too. Always check with your doctor before combining natural and conventional treatments.