Sepsis in Nursing Homes

The elderly are particularly susceptible to sepsis, which can become a life-threatening condition. Quick diagnosis and treatment are vital to protecting against septic shock. Nursing home abuse or negligence may lead to sepsis from untreated wounds or infections.

Elderly Patient

Nursing homes and their staff have a responsibility to their residents. They must maintain a clean facility and follow infection control protocols. They should monitor patients and ensure they get treatment for illnesses and injuries when necessary.

Failing to provide the appropriate standard of care to residents of a nursing home could lead to infections, sepsis, septic shock, or death. If your loved one develops sepsis in a nursing home, you may have a right to pursue compensation from the facility. At NursingHomesAbuse.org, we offer support to families like yours to protect vulnerable seniors against negligence in a nursing home.

The Danger of Sepsis in Nursing Homes

Sepsis is possible in unsanitary nursing homes, as well as those that have many people coming in and out frequently. The more people that residents are around, the more likely it is that they will face exposure to viruses, bacteria, and fungi that may lead to septic infections.

Unfortunately, since the elderly may have weakened immune systems and other illnesses, they are more likely to develop sepsis due to an infection.

With early treatment, most infections won’t go on to turn into sepsis. However, nursing home neglect could mean that a patient goes without an examination or the medications they need. The staff may not report or record the resident’s fever, illness, or other symptoms, meaning they are left to deal with pain, fever, confusion, and other symptoms without the support they need.

What causes sepsis?

Sepsis Alliance notes that infections are the primary cause of sepsis, though not all infections lead to it. Sepsis occurs when an infection gets out of control and enters the bloodstream. Without prompt treatment, there is the potential for this infection to lead to septic shock, a life-threatening condition.

Sepsis spreads in long-term care facilities and nursing homes more easily since these facilities allow residents to interact with many people, including other residents, their families, and the nursing home’s staff. The increased interactions raise the risk of catching an illness that could become sepsis.

Common illnesses that may cause infections in a nursing home include:

  • MRSA
  • Vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus
  • C. Difficile
  • Influenza
  • Colds
  • Gastroenteritis

Some of the illnesses that may require a transfer to the hospital include:

  • Significant infections of wounds
  • Meningitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Endocarditis
  • Urinary tract infections

If your loved one has these infections or other undiagnosed symptoms, they must be seen by their primary care doctor or go to the hospital.

If the nursing home staff does not recognize these illnesses or symptoms and fails to seek help for the resident, the facility may be accused of nursing home neglect and could face legal action.

What is septic shock?

According to Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine, septic shock occurs when sepsis, a body-wide infection of the blood, suddenly causes dangerously low blood pressure. It may affect people of all ages, but those with weakened immune systems, like the elderly, are at greater risk.

Sepsis may have progressed to septic shock if the following symptoms are present:

  • Skin rashes
  • Trouble breathing
  • Lightheadedness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Decreased mental status

Septic shock requires emergency treatment, as it is a medical emergency. Possible complications could include cardiac failure, respiratory failure, and organ failure.

What are the signs of sepsis?

There are many symptoms that sepsis can cause, some of which include:

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Poor appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Cold extremities
  • High fever
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Anxiety
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Lethargy
  • Agitation
  • Extreme pain
  • Changes in mental status

The problem with these symptoms is that they don’t necessarily only point to sepsis. Other conditions, such as migraine, dementia, a cold, the flu, COVID-19, and other conditions may also lead to these symptoms. For that reason, the nursing home staff should complete a full examination to determine the cause of the condition. If they cannot, the elderly person should see their doctor or go to the hospital as soon as possible.

In later stages of sepsis, a sepsis rash may appear. The rash looks like many tiny pinpricks grouped together. Unlike other rashes, this type doesn’t fade when you push on it. This rash may worsen and start to bruise. If you see this, it’s vital to get immediate treatment for your loved one.

Is sepsis a sign of nursing home abuse or neglect?

Although it is not always a result of neglect or abuse, sepsis in a nursing home could be a sign of neglect in some cases. Sepsis tends to occur when a wound, sore, UTI, injury, or illness of some kind does not receive adequate or appropriate treatment.

That illness could result from failing to maintain the cleanliness of the facility, abusing a resident, failing to provide appropriate medications, or failing to order treatment for a resident’s health condition.

Staff members have a responsibility and duty to recognize and treat the signs of illnesses, injuries, sepsis, and septic shock. When they fail to do so, the patient or their family members may be able to file a claim against the nursing home.

Are there ways to prevent sepsis in a nursing home?

Nursing home staff and caregivers can reduce the risk of sepsis through careful and diligent attention to the facility and its residents.

Prevention methods include:

  • Monitoring residents to make sure they are recovering well from infections and illnesses
  • Closely following infection control protocols and isolating those with illnesses or contagious infections
  • Taking time to help residents wash their hands regularly
  • Treating open wounds or injuries quickly to prevent infection
  • Calling the hospital and transferring the patient immediately when signs of sepsis appear

Is treatment possible once sepsis occurs?

Treatment depends on the severity and stage of sepsis.

Options for treatment include:

  • Antibiotics
  • Supplementary oxygen
  • Kidney dialysis
  • Surgery to remove necrosis
  • Blood pressure medication to address septic shock
  • Intravenous fluids (IVs)

It’s vital to seek treatment as soon as possible. Early treatment of sepsis greatly improves the prognosis.

It can be devastating to watch a loved one go through sepsis or septic shock. There is no excuse for negligence or abuse that leads to this condition. The complications are potentially deadly, so it is important to take steps to get appropriate treatment for your loved one and then to look into your legal options.

Dr. Patricia Shelton headshot

Reviewed by:

Dr. Patricia Shelton, MD

Dr. Patricia Shelton, MD, is a medical content creator. She holds a Doctor of Medicine degree and a Bachelors degree in neuroscience, both from the University of Washington in Seattle. Her career is now focused around medical communications. She primarily writes content for health-related websites, but has also written test prep materials, white papers, court documents, and more. She also teaches anatomy and physiology at the college level for the National Institutes of Health, as well as at the general public level in yoga teacher training programs. Her book, The Yoga Doctor, was published in 2015.

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Our fact-checking process begins with a thorough review of all sources to ensure they are high quality. Then we cross-check the facts with original medical or scientific reports published by those sources, or we validate the facts with reputable news organizations, medical and scientific experts and other health experts. Each page includes all sources for full transparency.