Sepsis Can Cause a Red Line on Your Skin—Here's What You Need To Know

Noticing this mark on your skin can be a warning sign.

At least 1.7 million adults in America develop sepsis each year. And at least 350,000 adults who develop sepsis die during their hospitalization or are discharged to hospice each year.

Sepsis is one of the oldest described illnesses (first described back in 400 BCE), and it's also been on the rise since 2000. Learn about this potentially fatal condition, how to recognize symptoms—one being a red line on your skin—and when to seek treatment.

What Is Sepsis?

Sepsis is a potentially life-threatening condition caused by an extreme reaction the body has to infection. It happens when an infection you already have triggers a chain reaction throughout your body.

When sepsis occurs, it can progress rapidly. In severe cases, one or more organ systems fail. In the worst cases, blood pressure drops, the heart weakens, and the patient spirals toward septic shock. Once this happens, multiple organs—lungs, kidneys, liver—may quickly fail, which is usually fatal.

"Sepsis is the most serious form of any infection," Frank Esper, MD, pediatric infectious disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic, told Health. "Sepsis is when you have an infection so bad it is disseminating across the body—kidneys shutting down, liver shutting down, heart's in trouble." Seeking medical care quickly is of the utmost importance once you see symptoms, which may include mental decline, a fever, and fatigue.

Is Sepsis Contagious?

You can’t contract or spread sepsis from/to other people. However, because sepsis can be caused by an infection, you can spread some infections to other people.

Sepsis Symptoms and Diagnosis

Common symptoms of sepsis are fever, chills, rapid breathing and heart rate, rash, confusion, and disorientation. Many of these symptoms are also common in other conditions, making sepsis challenging to recognize, especially in its early stages. If you have the following symptoms, your healthcare provider may diagnose sepsis:

  • Fever
  • Low blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Difficulty breathing

Healthcare providers may also perform tests to check for signs of infection or organ damage or to identify the bacteria that caused the infection that led to sepsis.

They may also perform a chest X-ray or a CT scan to locate an infection. In addition, they can use a scoring system to determine if the function of a particular organ is declining and note the number of organ systems affected.

A Red Mark or Red Line

One of the symptoms of sepsis is a rash that does not fade when you press it.A red mark may appear if an infection travels through the lymph nodes to other body parts. "It's very concerning. You need to be on antibiotics immediately," said Dr. Esper, adding that his team sees these marks often.

Red streaks or a red line on the skin may be a sign of lymphangitis. Lymphangitis is an infection of the lymph vessels and is a complication of some bacterial infections such as streptococcal infection or staphylococcal infection. The infection causes the lymph vessels to become inflamed.

Lymphangitis may be a sign that the bacteria is spreading into the blood and may develop into sepsis, which can cause life-threatening problems. The red streaks can spread within a few hours. Fever, chills, and malaise may accompany lymphangitis.

Dr. Esper said there's a simple way to track whether redness around a wound is spreading, which could signal infection. "Take a pen and mark around the site. Draw a border around the redness. Does the redness go beyond that mark [the next day]? If you're on antibiotics and the redness goes beyond those markings, we're on the wrong antibiotics, or we need something more powerful."

Causes of Sepsis

Sepsis is caused by infections. Bacterial infections cause most cases of sepsis. But sepsis can be caused by viral or fungal infections, too.

Normally, the body releases chemicals into the blood to fight infection. If unchecked, these chemicals trigger widespread inflammation, blood clots, and leaky blood vessels. As a result, blood flow is impaired, depriving organs of nutrients and oxygen and leading to organ damage.

Risk Factors

Anyone can get an infection that could potentially lead to sepsis. But some types of people are at greater risk for the urgent conditions. They include:

  • Adults 65 or older
  • People with weakened immune systems
  • People with chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, lung disease, cancer, and kidney disease
  • People with recent severe illness or hospitalization
  • People who survived sepsis
  • Children younger than one

Treatment

Healthcare provuders should treat sepsis with antibiotics as soon as possible. Antibiotics are critical tools for treating life-threatening infections, like those that can lead to sepsis.

Fast detection and initial treatment of sepsis are of utmost importance. Research shows that rapid, effective sepsis treatment includes:

  • Giving appropriate treatment, including antibiotics
  • Maintaining blood flow to organs
  • Sometimes surgery is required to remove tissue damaged by the infection

Individual immune responses and responses to treatment such as antibiotics may vary. Scientists are continually trying to find new therapies and determine which individuals are likely to benefit most from certain approaches.

A Quick Review

Sepsis is the most serious form of infection, yet anyone can develop the potentially fatal condition. Sepsis is the body’s extreme response to an infection. It is life-threatening, and without timely treatment, sepsis can rapidly lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death. 

Being educated about the symptoms of sepsis and seeking out medical treatment are critical to successful recovery from sepsis. 

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is sepsis?

  2. Berg D, Gerlach H. Recent advances in understanding and managing sepsisF1000Res. 2018;7:1570. doi: 10.12688/f1000research.15758.1

  3. National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Sepsis.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How is sepsis diagnosed and treated?

  5. Sepsis Trust. What is sepsis?

  6. Medline Plus. Lymphangitis.

  7. Kano Y, Momose T. Acute lymphangitisCCJM. 2020;87(3):129-130. doi:10.3949/ccjm.87a.19095

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