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This article provides an overview of a variety of potentially life-threatening disorders that share many symptoms in common and often involve immune system responses to infections or allergens.

Sepsis is a serious and life-threatening condition that where the immune system’s reaction to an infection, usually bacterial, can cause tissue damage elsewhere in the body. Over time, sepsis affects organ functions and can lead to severe sepsis, followed by septic shock. Typical symptoms of sepsis include: (1) a fever above 101.3 or below 95; (2) a heart rate above 90 beats per minute; (3) a respiratory rate above 20 breaths per minute; and (4) a probable or confirmed infection. As sepsis progresses to severe sepsis, patients experience splotchy skin, significantly decreased urination, sudden changes in mental status, decreased platelet count, difficulty breathing, and abnormal heart function.

The final stage of sepsis is septic shock, which is severely life-threatening. It results from toxins in a bacterial infection damaging tissue, causing low blood pressure and interfering with organ function—including the heart, brain, kidneys, liver, and intestines.

Anaphylactic shock is a life-threatening disorder that stems from the immune system’s response to an allergic reaction. Often, the allergic reaction is caused by certain foods, venom, certain medications, or latex. The immune system releases a variety of chemicals that can cause bodily systems to go into shock, resulting in a drop in blood pressure and narrowed airways. The symptoms, which manifest themselves quickly after exposure, include a rapid, weak pulse; skin rash; dizziness or fainting; the sensation of a blocked airway; a swollen tongue or throat; and nausea and vomiting. If untreated, anaphylactic shock can be deadly.

Cardiogenic shock is a potentially fatal condition in which the heart is suddenly unable to pump sufficient blood to meet the body’s needs. It is most frequently the result of a severe heart attack and requires immediate treatment. The symptoms include: rapid breathing and shortness of breath; sudden rapid heartbeat; confusion; loss of consciousness; weak pulse; sweating; pale skin; cold hands or feet; and decreased urination.

Hypovolemic shock, also involves the inability of the heart to pump sufficient blood throughout the body, although in this case as a result of severe blood and fluid loss—approximately 1/5 of the normal amount present in your body. It may also disrupt organ function. The blood loss may result from external injury or internal hemorrhaging; it may also arise as a result of burns, diarrhea, excessive perspiration, or vomiting. Common symptoms include anxiety; cool, clammy skin; confusion; decreased urination; general weakness; pale skin color; rapid breathing; and unconsciousness.

Neurogenic shock, similar to the other types of shock just reviewed, is a disorder that interferes with the normal functioning of organs in the body. In the case of neurogenic shock, however, the disruption is a result of severe injury to the brain or spinal cord.

Toxic shock is a potentially life-threatening condition caused by a bacterial infection. Although it can afflict anyone, it occurs most often in menstruating women and has been linked to tampon use and contraceptive sponges. Skin wounds and surgery may also give rise to toxic shock. The symptoms, which appear suddenly, include: high fever; low blood pressure; vomiting or diarrhea; skin rash resembling a sun burn; confusion; muscle aches; redness in the eyes, mouth, and throat; seizures; and headaches.

Bacteremia is a condition characterized by the presence of bacteria in the blood stream. The bacteria may be introduced by normal activities, dental or medical care, or from infections. Generally, bacteremia does not lead to further infections and thus symptoms do not present themselves. However, if the bacteria is present for sufficient time, it can infect tissue or organs and cause serious infections, giving rise to septicemia, and the onset of sepsis. In this case, initial symptoms include spiking fevers; chills; rapid breathing; and rapid heart rate. These symptoms quickly progress into decreased body temperature; falling blood pressure; confusion or changed mental status; red spots on the skin; and decreased urination. Those with weakened immune systems are particularly at risk.

Chorioamnionitis is an infection that affects placental tissues and amniotic fluid. It can lead to bacteremia in the mother, preterm births, and serious infections for the newborn baby. The symptoms vary from patient-to-patient, but may include fever; increased heart rate for the mother and fetus; tender or painful uterus; and a foul odor in the amniotic fluid.

Meningitis is a potentially life-threatening inflammation and swelling of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord that generally results from a bacterial or viral infection, and in fewer cases a fungal infection. The emblematic symptoms of meningitis are headache; fever; and stiff neck. Other symptoms are similar to flu symptoms and include vomiting or nausea; confusion and difficulty concentrating; seizures; drowsiness; sensitivity to light; low appetite; and skin rashes.

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