Harvard Health Letter

What is the condition called sepsis?

sepsis-surgery
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Ask the doctor

Q. Can you please explain what sepsis is? What happens in the body to make it fatal?

A. Sepsis is one of several conditions in which the immune system, which is meant to protect us from things foreign (like germs), goes awry and injures us instead. The disordered activity of the immune system that we call sepsis doesn't just start out of the blue. Instead, it is often triggered by another serious condition that is urgently calling on the immune system to help the body heal. Often, the condition that triggers sepsis is an infection (particularly infection by bacteria). However, other things also can lead to sepsis: autoimmune diseases, surgery, or severe burns, for example.

Things go wrong when the activated cells of the immune system that are trying to help the body heal instead go over-board. The immune response is both too vigorous and too prolonged: it can't quiet itself down when it needs to. It's as if the immune system has developed a problem with anger management, and the angry response becomes dysfunctional.

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