Treatment and Prognosis of Pneumococcal Sepsis

Pneumococcal sepsis is a serious medical condition where bacteria, specifically Streptococcus pneumoniae, infect the blood.  The infection of the blood causes the immune system to react at full force and creates an inflammatory response as a counter attack to the bacterial infection.  Although caused by the immune system itself, the inflammatory response comes with its own consequences and can cause further damage to the body resulting in permanent damage and possible shutdown of the internal organs.

Pneumococcal sepsis occurs in individuals who have weakened immune systems such as cancer patients, those infected with HIV, recent transplant patients, and those who are recovering from recent invasive surgical operations.  Others at risk include young babies, elderly people, and diabetics.  Healthy individuals with no prior history of immune system problems or other serious health issues rarely develop pneumococcal sepsis.

The transmission of the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria is spread through droplets from coughs or sneezes of infected individuals who are in close proximity to others.  In airborne cases, Streptococcus pneumoniae, when inhaled through the lungs, will cause pneumonia.  When the bacteria enter the body through a break in the skin, such as a wound or healing closure from a recent operation, sepsis can occur, especially if the individual is taking some kind of immune suppressing drug.

Symptoms of pneumococcal sepsis can look similar to that of an infection caused by influenza.  They include fever and chills, reduced urination, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.  Other symptoms include a very low body temperature, rapid breathing, and rapid heart rate.  Individuals with the beginning stages of this infection may also seem confused or disoriented. 

Diagnosis for pneumococcal sepsis in an individual includes testing the blood and other body fluids for bacteria.  The blood is also checked to look for an unusually high or low white blood cell count, low platelet count, and too much acid in the blood.  The blood pressure is also checked to see if it is unusually low. 

After completing a diagnosis, antibiotics will be administered to the patient.  The most commonly used antibiotic is penicillin.  Penicillin is a broad spectrum antibiotic (it will not discriminate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria) and is widely available.  Depending on the state of the patient and the severity of the infection, IV fluids and oxygen may be administered to maintain the patient’s blood pressure and blood oxygen levels. 

Unfortunately, even with treatment, those who survive a pneumococcal sepsis infection may still have some sort of internal organ damage caused by the inflammation from the immune system.  Of the elderly patients who become infected, 20% die from it.  33% of babies who are three months or younger will also die of this infection.

Pneumococcal sepsis can be prevented with specific vaccines.  These vaccines are recommended for individuals who have a much higher chance of getting this type of infection such as those listed previously.  The vaccines do help prevent infection against the specific bacteria that they are intended for but are not effective if the sepsis is caused by a different type of bacteria.