Oscar winner Patty Duke passed away at the age of 69. Duke’s obituary listed the cause of death as sepsis from a ruptured intestine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes more and more people develop sepsis each year.

You might have heard about sepsis, or becoming “septic,” on your favorite medical show when doctors scrambled to save a septic patient. But how much do you know about sepsis and its symptoms?

Related: Having Surgery? 8 Ways to Avoid a Hospital Infection

What is sepsis?

Sepsis can happen when you have an infection. Chemicals the body releases to fight the infection trigger inflammation. According to the Mayo Clinic, “This inflammation can trigger a cascade of changes that can damage multiple organ systems, causing them to fail.”

Any type of infection can cause sepsis, including skin infections, pneumonia and urinary tract infections according the CDC. If sepsis turns into septic shock, blood pressure will plummet and death may result.

Anyone with an infection can get sepsis, but according to the CDC, the risk of sepsis is higher in:

  • People with weakened immune systems
  • Babies and very young children
  • Elderly people
  • People with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, AIDS, cancer, and kidney or liver disease
  • People suffering from a severe burn or wound

There are more than 1 million cases of sepsis each year. According to the CDC, 28 to 50 percent of people who get sepsis die.

Many people recover fully from sepsis if it’s caught in time, but some are left with permanent organ damage.

Related: Would You Ask Your Doctor If He Washed His Hands?

Sepsis symptoms

Sepsis is hard to diagnose because there isn’t a single sign or symptom that automatically points to it. The person might have diarrhea, vomiting, sore throat or any of the signs or symptoms spelled out by the acronym SEPSIS:

S - Shivering, fever, or feeling very cold
E - Extreme pain or general discomfort, as in “worst ever”
P - Pale or discolored skin
S - Sleepy, difficult to rouse, confused
I - “I feel like I might die”
S - Shortness of breath

If you have signs or symptoms of sepsis, call your doctor right away or go the emergency room. Be sure to tell the doctor you think you might have sepsis.

Doctors can treat sepsis with antibiotics. Patients can receive oxygen and IV fluids to maintain normal blood oxygen levels and blood pressure. Kidney dialysis may be needed, according to the CDC. Surgery may necessary in some cases to remove the damaged tissue.

Related: What Do Gram-Negative and Gram-Positive Mean?

Prevention tips

Follow these tips from the CDC on how to prevent sepsis.

Prevent infections. Clean scrapes and wounds and wash your hands often.

Get vaccinated. It’s important to be protected against infections that may lead to sepsis, such as the flu and pneumonia.

If you feel worse days after surgery, call your doctor and ask about sepsis.

Related: How Good Is Your Local Hospital?

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Muriel Vega is a writer with a passion for budget travel and staying safe while abroad. A Georgia State University graduate, she has over 6 years of editorial experience and has written for The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Billfold, among other outlets. In her free time, you can find her baking pies, playing with her two dogs and cat, or planning her next vacation. She spends way too much time on Twitter, one of her favorite social media channels. Her favorite safety tip: Make sure you have all the necessary shots before you go abroad.