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Doctors Share the Symptoms of a Deadly Infection as Viruses Rise, Including Chills

The CDC says 35,000 people die each year in the United States from deadly infections. Learn the signs and what to know. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "antibiotic-resistant bacteria and fungi cause more than 2.8 million infections and 35,000 deaths in the United States each year. That means, on average, someone in the United States gets an antibiotic-resistant infection every 11 seconds and every 15 minutes someone dies."  We're surrounded by things that can kill us on a regular basis, but our immune system works around the clock to fight off foreign invaders and keep us healthy.

But we need to do our part too. Taking safety precautions and staying informed, especially given the current climate of COVID-19, and an uptick of flu and RSV cases can help avoid sickness, but there's no way to totally prevent infections. "Although there is no guaranteed way to avoid all deadly infections, there are several things that people can do to minimize their risk of infection," Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD, FACEP, FUHM, FACMT Medical Toxicologist and Co-Medical Director at the National Capital Poison Center tells us. 

She continues, "It's important to work closely with your doctors to manage all chronic medical conditions and get recommended vaccinations (like COVID-19 boosters and flu shots) that can help reduce your chances of getting serious infections. Practice good hand hygiene, and always wash your hands after using the restroom and touching animals, as well as before and after handling food." Dr. Evelyn Huang, an emergency medicine resident physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital says another way to help reduce the risk of a deadly infection is to "limit exposure." She adds, "This means having good hygiene (such as hand washing and sanitizing), wearing protective equipment when indicated (such as gloves and masks), and avoiding others that may be ill. If someone has a wound or cut, make sure that it is kept clean and not exposed to potentially dangerous bacteria." Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


How Infections Turn Deadly


Dr. Johnson-Arbor explains, "In many people, infections are localized to one area of the body. For example, strep throat often affects only the oral cavity, and pneumonia affects the lungs). Our immune system is normally effective in fighting off infections and eliminating infection-causing germs from the body. In some individuals, however, infections can spread throughout the body, and in some cases the immune system does not respond normally to the presence of infection.

This can result in a condition called "sepsis". Sepsis is characterized by an intense and abnormal immune response that occurs due to infection. Patients affected by sepsis can experience rapid deterioration in their clinical condition and can develop multi-organ failure and death. Unfortunately, nearly one-third of patients affected by severe cases of sepsis do not survive their illness.


Some People Are at a Greater Risk for a Deadly Infection

Woman checking blood sugar level while sitting on bench

Dr. Johnson-Arbor says, "People with weakened immune systems, including those with diabetes, cancer, and other chronic diseases, are at increased risk for sepsis and deadly infections. Very young and very old individuals are also at risk for developing sepsis. However, deadly infections can also occur in healthy people without any of these risk factors."

Dr. Huang tells us, "People who are immunocompromised are at risk of getting sick and having more severe symptoms. This can include patients with underlying diseases or people who are taking medications that lower their immune system (such as chemotherapy). Because their immune system is compromised, they will have a harder time fighting off infections."


Common Ways to Get a Deadly Infection

The diagnosis Sepsis written on a clipboard

Dr. Johnson-Arbor says, "Bacterial infections are the most common causes of sepsis, but sepsis can also occur in people with fungal infections or viruses. COVID-19, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) can also cause sepsis in susceptible individuals. Some types of food poisoning can also cause deadly infections. Vibrio vulnificus is a bacteria found in shellfish, including oysters, as well as in warmer, brackish waters. Vibrio vulnificus infection can occur after consumption of raw oysters contaminated with Vibrio vulnificus or if contaminated water enters the body through an open skin wound. Initial signs and symptoms of Vibrio vulnificus infection can include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, and can progress quickly to sepsis and death."

The CDC explains various ways people can contract an antibiotic resistance infection, which is "the ability of germs to defeat the drugs designed to kill them—is one of the greatest global public health challenges of our time. Antibiotics are one of our most powerful tools for fighting life-threatening infections. Their discovery has transformed human and animal health. Unfortunately, we now live in an era when people around the world, including Americans, are dying from untreatable infections because of the emergence and spread of antibiotic resistance.

■ Close contact (direct or indirect) with a person carrying a resistant germ—for example, this can happen when healthcare providers move from one patient to the next without washing their hands.

■ In the air—for example, TB bacteria can enter the air when a person with TB

disease of the lungs or throat coughs, speaks, or sings.

■ Contaminated water, which may include sewage systems, hospital plumbing, or recreational water.

■ Contact with contaminated surfaces, such as hospital bed rails, kitchen counters, shared equipment (e.g., ultrasound machines), or personal items (e.g., towels)

■ Animals—for example, eating contaminated food or touching animals carrying resistant germs.

■ Sexual contact with a person carrying a resistant germ (e.g., N. gonorrhoeae

or Shigella)."


Signs of a Deadly Infection

Woman with face mask sneezing into elbow while sitting in a cafe.

Dr. Johnson-Arbor says, "Unfortunately, the initial signs and symptoms of deadly infections can be nonspecific. People with sepsis may have a high fever, rapid heart rate, or confusion. However, these signs and symptoms are not specific for sepsis and may also occur in patients with other medical conditions. Because deadly infections can progress quickly, it's important to seek medical attention as soon as possible if you are concerned that you or a loved one is suffering from sepsis."

Dr. Huang tells us, "Symptoms can vary depending on the type of infection. However people with fevers, nausea/vomiting, chills, and confusion may have signs of an infection that has spread to the entire body. Anyone with concerns for an infection should be talking to a healthcare provider."


Deadly Infections Can Spread


Dr. Johnson-Arbor explains, "Sepsis is not contagious; some people may develop sepsis due to an infection such as COVID-19 or influenza, while others may experience a self-limited illness. However, it's important to remember that the illnesses that cause sepsis can be contagious and can easily spread to other people." 

Dr. Huang says, "Contagiousness depends on the infection! For example, infections can spread via respiratory droplets (such as coughs or sneezes), through open wounds and cuts, through fecal-oral transmission (infections spread through stool and ingested by another person), or even by insects and animals."

The CDC explains, "Germs continue to spread and develop new types of resistance, and progress may be undermined by some community-associated infections that are on the rise. More action is needed to address antibiotic resistance. While the development of new treatments is one of these key actions, such investments must be coupled with dedicated efforts toward preventing infections in the first place, slowing the development of resistance through better antibiotic use, and stopping the spread of resistance when it does develop to protect American lives now and in the future. Antibiotic-resistant germs can spread between people with and without symptoms of infection." 

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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