21 Sep Educating the Public About Sepsis
September is Sepsis Awareness Month – 30 days to put a spotlight on a condition that kills more Americans every year than breast cancer, prostate cancer, and AIDS combined. According to this year’s Sepsis Alliance (SA) Annual Awareness survey, knowledge of the word sepsis has risen to 58%, up from 19% 10 years ago. But knowing the word and understanding what it is are not the same thing. Many misconceptions about sepsis remain.
If you ask people what the signs and symptoms of a stroke are, chances are they could tell you at least some of the common ones. But the SA survey showed that less than 1% of respondents could say what the signs and symptoms of sepsis are. In addition, 24% believed that healthy people don’t need to be concerned about infections and 39% said that sepsis was contagious (it’s not).
So, what is sepsis? Sepsis is your body’s toxic overreaction to an infection. Your immune system attacks your body instead of the infection. The infection could be local, like an infected bug bite, a urinary tract infection, or pneumonia. Or it could be systemic, like influenza. All have the potential of triggering sepsis and can lead to death.
It’s not surprising so few people understand sepsis. The word isn’t used.
Frequently when patients die from sepsis, their families are told death was due to complications, perhaps from infection, cancer, or surgery. Death certificates often don’t have sepsis written on them. Many survivors say the word was never used throughout their time in the hospital and often they find out only when reading records or discharge papers.
This needs to change. Much like strokes and heart attacks, sepsis has a golden hour. It needs to be recognized and treated as quickly as possible to minimize the chances of organ and tissue damage, or death. But this often doesn’t happen because people aren’t aware of sepsis and they cannot advocate for something they don’t know exists.
What can we do to change this landscape? Education is paramount, not just in Sepsis Awareness Month, but all year long. We can start by using the word when patients are diagnosed with sepsis or are at risk for sepsis. We can encourage and promote public service campaigns to educate the public about how infections can lead to sepsis. We can make a difference by saying the word. Say Sepsis. Save Lives.
Marijke Vroomen Durning, RN, has many years of experience working with patients and their families. She has been with Sepsis Alliance as their Director of Content since 2010.