A few weeks before Christmas, 12-year-old Alyssa Alcaraz was not feeling like her usual bubbly self. The normally energetic and vibrant girl who loved singing, cheerleading and making people laugh was feeling lethargic and ill.
Her mother, Keila Lino Alcaraz, took her to Kaweah Delta Medical Center in Visalia, California, for treatment, according to ABC News. There, she was diagnosed with the flu and sent home with instructions to rest, drink fluids and take ibuprofen.
Three days later, Alyssa was dead and the bright light of the Alcaraz family was extinguished. The culprit behind this tragedy was not the flu at all. In fact, Alyssa’s death was caused by septic shock and cardiac arrest.
Sadly, this is not the first time that parents have lost a child to overlooked sepsis, which Dr. Greg Martin, a critical-care physician at Emory University School of Medicine, called “the great masquerader.” This is because the symptoms of sepsis can mimic the symptoms of the flu, pneumonia and other illness, leading doctors to miss sepsis until it is too late.
What Is Sepsis?
Sepsis is caused by the body’s own immune system when it “go[es] into overdrive in response to an infection,” according to Healthline. When a person has an infection (bacterial, fungal or viral), the body’s natural reaction is to fight it. But the chemicals released while fighting the infection can cause a chain reaction of inflammatory responses throughout the body.
Symptoms of sepsis include shivering, a fever over 101 degrees Fahrenheit, extreme pain, sleepiness, confusion, shortness of breath, rash, and pale or discolored skin, as highlighted in this helpful visual from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
After sepsis, the next stage of the illness is severe sepsis, when organ failure can occur. Lastly comes septic shock, which is a medical emergency.
People with weakened immune systems and vulnerable patients (such as the very young, the very old or those with chronic diseases) are those who are most likely to develop sepsis. However, the Sepsis Alliance calls sepsis “an equal-opportunity killer impacting people of all ages and levels of health.”
Sadly, deaths from sepsis have been on the rise in the United States and elsewhere, with some doctors warning that this was due to growing antibiotic resistance. Severe sepsis strikes more than a million Americans a year, according to the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences, with a 15-30 percent mortality rate.
Other Deaths From Sepsis
Sepsis has the ability to take lives from otherwise healthy individuals.
Such was the case for 21-year-old Kyler Baughman of Penn., a bodybuilder who was studying to become a personal trainer. He had a fever before Christmas and as his symptoms worsened, he went to the emergency room. There, he was airlifted to a larger hospital as the medical staff realized they were dealing with something very serious. In an almost unbelievable turn of events, the young man who took impeccable care of his health died within just 24 hours. The cause? Septic shock brought on by influenza.
Sepsis can also be caused by seemingly small injuries. This was the case for the Staunton family from New York who lost their healthy, active son Rory after he got small cut on his arm in gym class… and died four days later due to a sepsis infection.
In 2014, a 3-year-old named Pippa was wrongly diagnosed with pneumonia at the hospital, but died just hours later from her true ailment: severe sepsis.
“Pippa went in at 7 p.m. and she died by 4 a.m. That’s how quickly it takes a life,” said her heartbroken father, Peter.
According to Sepsis Alliance, sepsis affects over 26 million people worldwide each year and is the largest killer of children in the world.
You can prevent sepsis in yourself and your family by practicing good hygiene. Cleaning any cuts and scrapes (no matter how small) is important, as is staying current with vaccinations.
It is also important to spread awareness about sepsis and to teach parents and medical staff to recognize the signs of sepsis before it is too late.
If you are concerned you or someone you know may be at risk for having developed sepsis, contact your doctor right away.
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