What is blood poisoning?
Blood poisoning (bacteremia) happens when bacteria enter your bloodstream. It is potentially a very serious condition that can lead to organ failure and even death.
Do not be confused by the name. Blood poisoning does not involve actual poison. The bacteria that cause blood poisoning contaminate the blood, which spreads it to the rest of the body.
Bacteria are often introduced to the body through wounds, such as burns, cuts, and scrapes. Bacteria introduction can also begin with something as simple as a sinus infection. Any of these situations can lead to blood poisoning.
Blood poisoning requires prompt treatment. Unless it is treated quickly, the bacteria in the blood can cause sepsis. Sepsis is the name for the most severe state of blood poisoning. During sepsis, bacteria can infect major organs, like the lungs, kidneys, and heart. In this stage, blood poisoning can be life-threatening.
Anyone can get blood poisoning and sepsis, but the risk is higher for:
- Infants and young children (especially those under 1 year of age).
- The elderly (65 years of age or older).
- People who have a weakened immune system.
- People who already suffer from a chronic disease or medical condition, such as AIDS, diabetes, or cancer.
- People who have just had surgery.
Symptoms of blood poisoning
The symptoms of blood poisoning are similar to symptoms of a cold or of the flu. If you recently have had surgery or have a wound that could be infected, you should take these symptoms seriously. They could signal blood poisoning.
If you have any of these symptoms, call your doctor:
- Chills (with or without shaking)
- Sudden fever (moderate to high)
- Faster-than-normal heartbeat
- Breathing fast
- Heart palpitations (heart skips a beat or seems to flutter)
Children with blood poisoning also may seem lethargic (have no energy) and be irritable.
What causes blood poisoning?
Blood poisoning is caused by bacteria entering the bloodstream, infecting the blood.
Bacteria can enter your bloodstream in a number of ways. Even routine daily activities can introduce harmful bacteria to your blood. For example, brushing your teeth too vigorously can do it. Having a simple dental cleaning can do it, especially if you have specific risk factors, such as prior knee or hip replacement. This is because it is difficult for your immune system to clear bacteria around prosthetic devices like artificial joints. In this case, your dentist will typically advice you to take antibiotics before your appointment in an effort to prevent this type of infection.
Bacteria can enter your bloodstream through a scraped knee or other wound. If you have an internal infection, like a sinus infection, bacteria can enter your bloodstream.
If only a few bacteria enter, you may not even realize it. This is because your immune system will often simply eliminate the bacteria. When this does not happen, it can cause blood poisoning. Sometimes, too many bacteria enter your bloodstream at once. Your immune system cannot keep up with the bacteria. This also causes blood poisoning.
How is blood poisoning diagnosed?
Blood poisoning is diagnosed by examining blood cultures to determine the presence of bacteria in the blood.
If you suspect that you have blood poisoning, you should call your doctor right away. Your doctor will examine you and order blood tests, if necessary.
If bacteria are present in your blood, your doctor will work to identify the type of bacteria. If you have a cut or other open wound on your body, your doctor may also swab that area to collect bacteria for identification.
Can blood poisoning be prevented or avoided?
There are ways to reduce your chances of getting blood poisoning.
If you have a wound, take care of it and don’t let it become infected. Keep it clean and treat it with antiseptics.
Get vaccinated against the flu and pneumonia.
If you have a tooth that is bothering you, don’t let it become infected. An abscessed tooth can cause blood poisoning. Instead, get in early to see a dentist before the tooth becomes a bigger problem.
If you have a sinus infection or ear infection, see your doctor. Infections such as these probably won’t need antibiotics. But if they do, knocking them down quickly will make it less likely that those bacteria will enter your bloodstream.
There are certain other situations that could put you at risk for blood poisoning. Having surgery or a medical treatment that involves a catheter can expose your body to bacteria. However, you have less control in these situations. Your best “prevention” in these instances is to just be aware of it and watch for possible symptoms.
Blood poisoning treatment
Treatment for blood poisoning will most likely take place in a hospital, where your doctor will give you antibiotics intravenously (directly into your vein).
It is important to treat blood poisoning as soon as possible. Without treatment, blood poisoning can lead to sepsis and begin damaging vital organs. If blood poisoning is caught early enough and is uncomplicated (does not affect organ or tissue function), you may potentially only require oral antibiotics (pills) from home.
Living with blood poisoning
Many people who develop blood poisoning have a full recovery and go on to lead normal lives.
However, blood poisoning is a serious condition and could lead to death. When blood poisoning progresses to sepsis, it can affect internal organs such as your kidneys and heart. At this stage, the damage done to these organs may be irreversible. For example, kidney damage could lead to lifelong dialysis.
Also, once you have had blood poisoning, you are at higher risk for developing infections in the future.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Am I in a higher-risk group for blood poisoning?
- If I have had blood poisoning before, am I at greater risk for having it again?
- Are there precautions I can take when having my teeth cleaned?
- Are there any long-term effects from having blood poisoning?
- Do I need any vaccines that could help protect me from blood poisoning?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.