Septic shock is a life-threatening condition that happens when blood pressure drops to a dangerously low level after an infection.
This reduces the amount of blood and oxygen that reaches the body’s organs, stopping them working properly.
Septic shock can occur as a complication of sepsis, a serious condition that happens when the body’s reaction to an infection damages its own tissues and organs.
Symptoms of septic shock
Symptoms of septic shock may develop if sepsis is left untreated. These can include:
- lightheadedness (dizziness)
- a change in mental state – such as confusion or disorientation
- feeling sick and vomiting
- slurred speech
- severe muscle pain
- severe shortness of breath
- producing less urine – for example, not peeing for a day
- cold, clammy and pale or mottled skin
- loss of consciousness
Getting medical help
Go straight to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department or call 999 for an ambulance if you think you or someone in your care has septic shock.
Septic shock is very serious and needs to be treated in hospital as soon as possible. Treatment is more effective the earlier it’s started.
Treatments for septic shock
Treatment is usually carried out in a hospital intensive care unit (ICU).
It may include:
- fluids given into a vein
- antibiotics given into a vein
- medicines that increase blood pressure and help blood reach tissues and organs
- surgery to remove the source of the infection (such as an abscess) and any tissue that has been badly damaged by the infection
- oxygen given through a face mask, a tube in the nose, or a tube passed down the throat
- a breathing machine (ventilator) if breathlessness is severe
It’s likely someone with septic shock will need to stay in hospital for several weeks.
Outlook for septic shock
While it can be treated, septic shock is a very serious condition that people can die from.
The chances of survival are better the earlier treatment is started.
Many people who are successfully treated will eventually make a full recovery, but some have long-lasting physical and mental health problems.
These problems are known as post-sepsis syndrome. You can read more about this on The UK Sepsis Trust website.
Who’s at risk of septic shock?
Anyone can develop septic shock, but it’s most common in people with a weak immune system, the body’s natural defences against illness and infection.
- elderly people
- pregnant women and women who’ve recently given birth
- people with serious or long-term health conditions, such as diabetes, scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), kidney disease or cancer
- people with a condition that weakens the immune system, such as HIV or AIDS
- people having treatment that weakens the immune system, such as chemotherapy or long-term steroid treatment
Septic shock often occurs in people who are already in hospital for another reason.