Many people assume that actor Christopher Reeve, known for his role as Superman, died from complications of paralysis (he became quadriplegic

after falling in a horse-riding accident). But that wasn’t the case. What started as a bedsore, a common hazard for folks with profound mobility issues, triggered sepsis.

It’s an overreaction by the body’s immune system to chemicals that are released both by the infecting bacteria (or virus or fungus) and by the immune system itself. The reaction launches a cascade of events that can damage organ systems and lead to septic shock, severely low blood pressure and death.

If that seems like an unusual sequence of events, it isn’t. Sepsis is a leading cause of death in the U.S., but fewer than half of Americans are even aware of the illness. It may surprise you that roughly 1.7 million Americans develop the condition, and 260,000 die from it every year. One in three patients who die in the hospital has sepsis!

Signs of sepsis include fever, chills, rapid breathing and heart rate, rash, low blood pressure and confusion, but they can be overlooked because they are similar to other conditions. While anyone can develop sepsis, the elderly, children under a year old and people with compromised immune systems are at increased risk.

If you or a loved one has any kind of infection and develops any of these symptoms, ask your doctor, “Could this be sepsis?” Immediate intervention with intensive care that provides antibiotics and fluids can make the difference between life and death.

Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. To live your healthiest, tune into “The Dr. Oz Show” or visit www.sharecare.com.

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