What is the Difference Between Sepsis and Septic Shock?

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Are you unsure as to what sepsis and septic shock really mean? Are you confused as to the difference between sepsis and septic shock? If you said yes to any question, read this lesson.

Confusing Terminology

What's the difference between ocean and sea? Some people use these terms interchangeably. Others will claim there is a difference and that one is a subset of the other. The same thing goes for two medical terms: sepsis and septic shock. They are sometimes used synonymously although really, one is a subset of the other.

You'll find out how in this lesson that delineates the difference between sepsis and septic shock.


Sepsis is a term that refers to a collection of signs and symptoms stemming from an overwhelming inflammatory/immune response to a systemic infection. Commonly, the infection is caused by bacteria. Because it is a response to a systemic infection that means the infectious agents have invaded the bloodstream and, quite possibly, are now in other tissues and organs. By 'other', this means in tissues or organs that were originally unaffected by the infectious agent.

The basics of what happens during sepsis goes is something like this. We'll take a case scenario approach here to explain it. Let's say some poor chap lands in a hospital in some developing country where modern hospital standards are lax. He is hooked up to an IV (intravenous) line for his problem. Unfortunately, the line is contaminated with bacteria. These bacteria jump with joy into his bloodstream and start the ball rolling on sepsis.

The bacteria themselves aren't so much the problem though. Yes, they are the inciting cause of the problem. However, it is his body's inflammatory/immune response to the sustained presence of the bacteria, their toxins or other products in the body that largely causes the numerous signs and symptoms associated with sepsis.

Some possible signs and symptoms of sepsis include:

  • Fever or a low body temperature
  • Skin rash
  • Inappropriate mental status in the patient, such as confusion
  • Rapid and shallow breathing
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Bleeding disorders

Septic Shock

Septic shock can be thought of a subset of the most severe form of sepsis. In septic shock, on top of all of the problems above as a result of sepsis, a person experiences hypotension, or very low blood pressure, which leads to shock.

Shock, as a word itself in medical lingo, refers to a state where the body's tissues and organs do not receive enough blood to maintain their life-sustaining processes. This can result in permanent organ failure and death.

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