Sepsis is a common illness not often discussed. But it’s one that can endanger the heart. Studies have shown that Black individuals have higher rates of sepsis, hospitalization mortality, and are twice more likely to develop sepsis than white individuals. In 2019 actress, Whoppi Goldberg said it nearly killed her.
It is technically not a specific condition, but a syndrome that has defied easy categorization in the past. The official definition according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is “the body’s extreme response to an infection.” Unofficially, it’s “a common process by which infections kill you,” Dr. Henry Wang, professor and vice chair for research in the department of emergency medicine at the Ohio State University in Columbus says.
Most cases can be blamed on bacteria. But viruses, including the flu and the virus that causes COVID-19, can also spark it, as can fungal infections. All infections, Wang shares, “can make the body overreact and can make the body very irritable and inflamed. And those toxins end up in your bloodstream and start to poison all the organs of the body.”
The dangers of sepsis
That means sepsis is entwined with the cardiovascular system and can endanger the heart, sometimes years after a person has been ill.
“For example, a common thing that happens when you get an infection is that the blood vessels dilate,” Wang adds. “That’s an overreaction to the invasion of the infection in the bloodstream. And because of that, your blood pressure drops.” The body then struggles to deliver adequate blood and oxygen to vital organs.
Sepsis also damages the lining of the blood vessels, Wang notes, making the person susceptible to blood clots and causing other problems that are “big players in heart disease,” such as inflammation.
Wang’s research published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases suggests people hospitalized for sepsis were twice as likely to have or die from a future coronary heart disease event such as a heart attack as people without a history of sepsis. That risk remained elevated for at least four years.
Other research in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine shows 10% to 40% of people with sepsis end up developing a type of irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation.
According to the CDC, at least 1.7 million U.S. adults develop sepsis yearly, and nearly 270,000 die as a result.
Sepsis may be especially dangerous for people with heart failure, where the heart does not pump properly. A study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found sepsis may account for almost a quarter of deaths in people with heart failure who have reduced heart pumping function.