Diseases & Conditions

What is sepsis?

Ask the doctor

By , Editor in Chief, Harvard Women's Health Watch; Editorial Advisory Board Member, Harvard Health Publishing; Contributor


Q. My mother, who was in her 80s, recently died after a bout with pneumonia. When I received her death certificate, however, it listed her cause of death as sepsis. What does that mean?

A. Sepsis occurs when a germ releases dangerous substances or the immune system overreacts to the infection. In this case, your mother had pneumonia, a serious lung infection. Most likely, her immune system roared into action to fight it, but this overwhelming response went awry by progressing into septic shock. This is a dramatic drop in blood pressure that can damage the lungs, kidneys, liver, and other vital organs and lead to death. An estimated 1.7 million American adults develop sepsis each year, and 270,000 die, according to the CDC.

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About the Author

photo of Toni Golen, MD

Toni Golen, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Women's Health Watch; Editorial Advisory Board Member, Harvard Health Publishing; Contributor

Dr. Toni Golen is a physician specializing in obstetrics and gynecology, practicing in Boston. Dr. Golen completed her residency training at George Washington University Medical Center in 1995, and is an associate professor at Harvard Medical … See Full Bio
View all posts by Toni Golen, MD


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