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In this lesson we’ll be looking at sepsis infection, which is an infection that affects the entire body. After learning about sepsis, you can test your knowledge with a quiz.


James A. Garfield, 20th president of the Unites States, was shot in the back on July 2, 1881. The shot didn’t kill him, however, the physicians attending him repeatedly stuck their unwashed fingers into his wound, introducing bacteria and causing sepsis.

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Sepsis isn’t a new concept. Hippocrates introduced the word, which is derived from the Greek word meaning ‘make rotten.’ The cause of sepsis wasn’t discovered until Louis Pasteur discovered bacteria. Unlike European physicians who adopted sterilization techniques and dropped the death rates of their patients, American physicians did not yet believe in the concept of germs. Unfortunately for Garfield, if they couldn’t see it, it didn’t exist.

President James A. Garfield
President Garfield

Sepsis is a whole-body infection that is potentially fatal. Severe sepsis (the second stage of sepsis) has the added factor of organ dysfunction, and the third stage is septic shock, is accompanied by low blood pressure that does not respond to treatment. The lower blood pressure drops, the more likely one is to die, since blood pressure is what pushes the blood around the body.

The less pressure, the less blood goes around. Usually sepsis develops in people who are hospitalized. It’s closely linked to the intensive care unit with severely ill or injured patients.

Hand washing, good hygiene, and avoiding sources of contamination are all excellent methods of preventing sepsis.


Prior to the advent of antibiotics, wound infections were something to be feared, particularly after surgery, as these wounds often developed sepsis and resulted in death for the patient. Physicians recognized these symptoms, but were powerless to do anything about them.Common symptoms usually include symptoms related to infection such as:; High fevers; Hot, flushed skin; Elevated heart rate; Hyperventilation; Altered mental status; Swelling; Low blood pressure


To be diagnosed with sepsis, a patient must have a known, or at least suspected, infection with at least two of the following symptoms:; Tachycardia (heart rate above 90 beats per minute at rest); Either a very high body temperature (above 100.4 F or 38 C) or very low (below 96.6 F or 36 C); Respiratory rate of more than 20 breaths per minute; Abnormally high white cell count

Shooting of President Garfield in 1881
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