Sepsis (Blood Stream Infection)

Author: OncoLink Team
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Sepsis is a systemic (body-wide) response to an infection. This means that a localized infection, for example in a port-a-cath, enters the blood stream and causes an infection throughout the body. Those with compromised immune systems, such as cancer patients, are particularly at risk for developing sepsis.

Sepsis is a medical emergency, as organ systems far from the initial site of infection can be impacted. Sepsis requires immediate medical intervention. There are multiple categories of sepsis, including severe sepsis, septic shock and neutropenic sepsis, which can be a result of chemotherapy damaging white blood cells.

Symptoms of sepsis include: fever, shaking, chills, decreased urination, rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Some patients experience hypothermia (decreased body temperature), as well as altered mental status, resulting in confusion and delirium. If you experience any symptoms of infection, and cannot reach your care team, go to the local emergency department and make sure to inform them that you are undergoing treatment for cancer. Active cancer treatment is often put on hold until the infection has cleared.

Prevention of sepsis is extremely important in cancer patients, as the immune system is often compromised. Precautions should be taken to prevent sepsis for all patients at risk. These precautions include:

  • Wash your hands frequently. Encourage family members and friends to wash their hands regularly as well.
  • Use a soft toothbrush and floss carefully. The goal is to avoid creating cuts or sores in your mouth where bacteria can enter the system.
  • If having sexual intercourse, use a water based lubricant to decrease friction.
  • While your immune system is not functioning properly, you could have a more difficult time fighting a food-borne illness. Make food safety a priority while you are on treatment.

When to contact your care team

  • You have a fever of greater than 100.4°F or 38°C.
  • You experience chills, sweats, decreased urination or rapid breathing.
  • If you have had a surgical procedure, and there is pain, redness or inflammation around the surgical site.
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