Sepsis is a life threatening complication of infection. Septicemia, or blood poisoning, is a type of sepsis. Sepsis is characterized by an aggressive inflammatory response to infection, which results in organ failure and death. It is a common cause of death in hospital patients as it often affects those who are elderly, seriously ill or immunosuppressed. Sepsis is possible in a healthy adult, but is far rarer.
In a normal patient, the immune system attacks bacterial infection by sending generalized white blood cells to attack the foreign bacteria, by releasing histamines to inflame the site of the infection to prevent it from spreading, and developing specialized white blood cells known as antibodies that specifically target the infection. A typical response to an infection at a specific site is for the body to form an abcess and target it with white bood cells, forming pus. As the infection abates, the abcess becomes isolated, the material dies away and is absorbed back into the body as waste. Hoewever, in rare cases, pus can leak out of the abcess back into the bloodstream, where it spreads throughout the body. As a result, the immune responses can go on unrestricted, leading to a very high white blood cell count and almost all of the bodies tissues becoming inflamed, even those that are not currently infected. Eventually, the immune response prevents the normal function of the body's organs, particularly the heart, kidneys and liver, leading to death.
Sepsis must be treated by attacking the underlying infection and reducing the body's immune response. In addition, the patient's fluids, particularly blood plasma, must be drained and replaced on a regular basis to prevent histamines and white blood cells from overwhelming the bloodstream.
Sepsis can be difficult to diagnose. In most patients, a runaway infection gives the patient a high fever, which is usually treated by administering antibiotics which will reduce the infection. However, sepsis is often marked by a very low grade fever, or patients can even have a body temperature below normal. Moreover, because the body's immune system is in overdrive, it is often confused with autoimmune conditions like lupus.
In House Training, Lupe develops sepsis from an infection with staphylococcus. The team mistakes it for an autoimmune disorder or cancer due to the fact the patient's body temperature is normal. House uses radiation therapy, which suppresses the patient's immune system and allows the staph infection to run unabated. Once they realize the patient has sepsis, they realize the treatment actually exacerbated the patient's condition and will result in her immediate death.