Sepsis/Blood Poisoning

Can medical cannabis help people with this condition? Find out more below. 

What is Sepsis?

Sepsis, also known as blood poisoning, is a potentially life-threatening condition that arises when the body’s response to an infection spirals out of control, causing widespread inflammation and organ dysfunction. It occurs when harmful microorganisms, such as bacteria, fungi, or viruses, invade the bloodstream and trigger an exaggerated immune response. 

If not promptly identified and treated, this overwhelming reaction can lead to a cascade of events, including tissue damage, organ failure, and even death. Sepsis is a medical emergency that requires immediate intervention, as timely diagnosis and appropriate therapy are crucial to improve patient outcomes and reduce the risk of long-term complications.

What causes it?

Sepsis is caused by an infection, often originating from a localized source, such as pneumonia, urinary tract infections, skin infections, or abdominal infections. Various pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites, can trigger the infection. When these microorganisms invade the bloodstream, the body’s immune system responds to combat the infection. 

However, in sepsis, this immune response becomes exaggerated and dysregulated, releasing excessive inflammatory mediators. The heightened inflammation can cause damage to the body’s tissues and organs, resulting in a life-threatening condition known as sepsis.

How common is it?

Sepsis is a relatively common condition affecting millions worldwide each year. The exact incidence of sepsis may vary by region. Still, there are estimated to be around 48.9 million cases and 11 million sepsis-related deaths annually, according to a study published in The Lancet in 2020. Sepsis is more common in vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, infants, and individuals with weakened immune systems or pre-existing medical conditions. It is also a leading cause of death in hospitals and intensive care units, emphasizing the importance of early recognition and treatment to improve patient outcomes.

Are there types/stages?

Sepsis is often classified into three stages, reflecting the severity and progression of the condition. The first stage is sepsis, diagnosed when an individual has a confirmed or suspected infection accompanied by at least two systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS) criteria. These criteria include fever or hypothermia, tachycardia, tachypnea, and leukocytosis or leukopenia.

The second stage is severe sepsis, which occurs when sepsis is accompanied by organ dysfunction, hypoperfusion, or hypotension. Signs of organ dysfunction may include altered mental status, decreased urine output, or abnormal laboratory values.

Septic shock is the third and most severe stage, characterized by persistent hypotension despite adequate fluid resuscitation. Septic shock is associated with significantly higher mortality risk and often requires vasopressor medications to maintain blood pressure and support organ perfusion. Early identification of the stage of sepsis is essential for guiding appropriate treatment and interventions.

Signs & Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of sepsis can be diverse and may initially resemble those of a mild infection. However, more severe symptoms may emerge as the condition progresses, indicating systemic involvement and organ dysfunction. Some common signs and symptoms of sepsis include:

  1. Fever or hypothermia: A high or low body temperature is often one of the first signs of sepsis. Patients may experience chills, shivering, or sweating due to temperature fluctuations.
  2. Tachycardia: An abnormally rapid heart rate is a common finding in sepsis, as the body tries to compensate for the decreased blood pressure and maintain adequate tissue perfusion.
  3. Tachypnea: Rapid breathing may occur as the body attempts to eliminate excess carbon dioxide produced during the inflammatory response.
  4. Altered mental status: Confusion, agitation, or decreased level of consciousness can indicate sepsis, particularly when associated with organ dysfunction, such as reduced blood flow to the brain.
  5. Pale, cold, or mottled skin: Poor blood circulation due to sepsis can lead to changes in skin color or temperature, which may be more noticeable in the extremities.
  6. Oliguria or anuria: Decreased urine output can be a sign of kidney dysfunction, which is a common organ affected in sepsis.
  7. Hypotension: Low blood pressure may develop as the condition worsens, particularly in the case of septic shock, where persistent hypotension occurs despite adequate fluid resuscitation.
  8. Leukocytosis or leukopenia: An abnormally high or low white blood cell count can indicate the body’s response to infection and inflammation.
  9. Lactic acidosis: Elevated lactate levels in the blood may be present in sepsis, reflecting tissue hypoperfusion and anaerobic metabolism.

Recognizing these signs and symptoms early is crucial, as timely diagnosis and treatment are critical for improving patient outcomes and reducing the risk of complications. If you suspect sepsis, seek immediate medical attention.

Diagnosis & Treatment

Diagnosing sepsis can be challenging due to the diverse and sometimes non-specific symptoms. However, early recognition and diagnosis are crucial to initiate prompt treatment and improve patient outcomes. The diagnostic process usually involves the following steps:

  1. Clinical assessment: The doctor will take a thorough medical history, ask about recent infections or injuries, and perform a physical examination to assess vital signs and look for any signs of disease or organ dysfunction.
  2. Laboratory tests: Blood tests are commonly ordered to detect the presence of infection, measure white blood cell count, check kidney and liver function, and assess blood clotting. Blood cultures may also be ordered to identify the microorganism responsible for the infection.
  3. Imaging studies: Depending on the suspected source of infection, imaging studies such as X-rays, ultrasounds, CT scans, or MRIs may be performed to identify the location and extent of the infection.

Once sepsis is diagnosed, treatment should be initiated immediately. The main components of sepsis treatment include:

  1. Antibiotics
  2. Intravenous fluids
  3. Vasopressors
  4. Supportive care
  5. Source control
  6. Monitoring and follow-up

Can medical cannabis help?

The potential role of medical cannabis in treating sepsis remains an area of ongoing research, and the current evidence is limited. Medical cannabis, which contains active compounds such as cannabinoids, primarily delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, and analgesic properties. These properties have led some researchers to explore the potential benefits of medical cannabis in managing sepsis-related symptoms and complications.

Some preclinical studies and animal models have suggested cannabinoids may help modulate the immune response and reduce sepsis-related inflammation. A study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology in 2009 demonstrated that CBD reduced the production of cytokines and chemokines, which are responsible for the excessive inflammation observed in sepsis. This suggests that CBD might potentially be therapeutic in managing the inflammatory response during sepsis. However, it is essential to note that these results are based on laboratory and animal studies, and their relevance to human patients with sepsis still needs to be established.

There is currently a lack of clinical trials and robust evidence to support medical cannabis as a standard treatment for sepsis. Further research, including well-designed clinical trials, is needed to determine the safety, efficacy, and appropriate dosing of medical cannabis in managing sepsis.

It is essential to consult with a healthcare professional before considering medical cannabis for any medical condition, including sepsis. Standard treatment protocols for sepsis should be followed. Any potential complementary or alternative therapies should be discussed with your healthcare team to ensure appropriate care and avoid potential adverse effects or interactions with other medications.

Last Updated: July 25, 2023

Get Your Medical Card

Connect with a licensed physician online in minutes

Keep Reading