The human immune system is an intricately constructed network of organs, cells and biological processes designed to ward off infection and disease. But sometimes the system goes into overdrive, leading to deadly consequences. (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

Sepsis awareness

Infection can set off a chain reaction that quickly causes death

The human immune system is a wonder, an intricately constructed network of organs, cells and biological processes designed to ward off infection and disease.

But sometimes the system goes into overdrive, leading to deadly consequences by releasing chemicals that cause widespread inflammation. A full-body chain reaction results, prompting rapid tissue damage, organ failure and death.

This extreme reaction is called sepsis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1.7 million Americans get sepsis each year, and about 270,000 die of the illness.

But just because sepsis is common doesn’t mean its signs are well known. When the Sepsis Alliance surveyed more than 2,000 adults online in 2017, the nonprofit group found that while 58 percent of respondents knew the word, few could identify all of its most common symptoms. The alliance is trying to promote awareness of sepsis during September, which it calls Sepsis Awareness Month.

Sepsis progresses rapidly. Patients can become confused or disoriented. Their heart rate rises and their skin becomes clammy or sweaty. Shortness of breath is common, as is a high heart rate. Some people get a fever, or feel extremely cold or shiver. Usually, they experience extreme pain.

The Sepsis Alliance, which was founded in 2007 after the death of Erin Flatley, a 23-year-old who had recently had surgery and whose symptoms were ignored, has an easy acronym to help you remember the signs and symptoms: TIME. You should call 911 or get to a hospital if you see a:

●higher or lower Temperature than normal;

●signs and symptoms of an Infection;

●a Mental decline, such as a person being sleepy or confused; and

●symptoms of Extreme illness, such as excruciating pain.

Act fast if you suspect sepsis. Because it moves so quickly, you don’t have time to spare. You can also help prevent the condition by staying up-to-date on vaccines, taking care of chronic conditions and practicing good hygiene, such as hand washing and covering up cuts and infected areas.

Erin Blakemore