Bacteremia is when there are bacteria present in your bloodstream. Another term that you may have heard for bacteremia is “blood poisoning,” however this isn’t a medical term.
In some cases, bacteremia can be asymptomatic, meaning there are no symptoms. In other cases, symptoms may be present and there’s a potential risk for serious complications.
Read on to learn more about bacteremia, its symptoms, and how it can be treated.
Bacteremia versus sepsis
You may have heard of bacteremia being associated with conditions like septicemia and sepsis. These terms are all closely related, but have slightly different meanings.
Strictly speaking, bacteremia refers to the presence of bacteria in the bloodstream. Bacteria can sometimes enter your bloodstream due to things like cleaning your teeth or undergoing a minor medical procedure.
In many healthy people, bacteremia will clear up on its own without causing illness. However, when an infection is established within the bloodstream, this type of bacteremia is differentiated as septicemia.
If left untreated, a bloodstream infection can lead to more serious complications. One of these is sepsis, which is caused by a strong immune response to the infection.
Sepsis and septic shock can lead to organ failure and even death.
A variety of different bacteria can cause bacteremia. Some of these bacteria can go on to establish an infection in the bloodstream.
Examples of such bacteria include:
- Staphylococcus aureus, including MRSA
- Escherichia coli (E. coli)
- Pneumococcal bacteria
- Group A Streptococcus
- Salmonella species
- Pseudomonas aeruginosa
Some common ways in which bacteremia occurs include:
- through a dental procedure such as a routine teeth cleaning or through a tooth extraction
- from a surgery or procedure
- an infection spreading from another part of the body into the bloodstream
- via medical devices, particularly in-dwelling catheters and breathing tubes
- through severe injuries or burns
Some cases of bacteremia are asymptomatic. In these cases, your immune system will often clear the bacteria without you knowing it.
When bacteremia results in a bloodstream infection, you’ll likely experience symptoms like:
- shaking or shivering
Bacteremia can be diagnosed using a blood culture. To do this, a sample of blood will be taken from a vein in your arm. It will then be sent to a lab to be tested for the presence of bacteria.
Depending on the presumed cause of your infection, your doctor may want to perform additional tests. Some examples include:
- sputum culture if you appear to have a respiratory infection or are using a breathing tube
- wound culture if you’ve been injured, burned, or have recently undergone surgery
- taking samples from in-dwelling catheters or other devices
Imaging tests such as an X-ray, CT scan, or ultrasound may also be used. These can be used to identify potential sites of infection in the body.
The treatment for a bloodstream infection requires prompt use of antibiotics. This can help to prevent complications like sepsis from occurring. You’ll be hospitalized during treatment.
When bacteria are confirmed in your blood, you’ll likely be started on broad-spectrum antibiotics, typically via IV. This is an antibiotic regimen that should be effective against many different types of bacteria.
During this time, the type of bacteria causing your infection can be identified and antibiotic sensitivity testing can be completed.
With these results, your doctor may adjust your antibiotics to be more specific to what’s causing your infection.
The length of treatment can depend on the cause and severity of the infection. You may need to be on antibiotics for 1 to 2 weeks. IV fluids and other medications may also be given during treatment to help stabilize your condition.
Risks and complications
If a bloodstream infection is left untreated, you’re at risk of developing potentially life-threatening complications such as sepsis and septic shock.
Sepsis occurs due to a strong immune response to an infection. This response can trigger changes in your body such as inflammation. These changes can be harmful and can lead to organ damage.
When septic shock occurs, your blood pressure drops dramatically. Organ failure may also occur.
Symptoms of sepsis and septic shock
If a bloodstream infection progresses to sepsis or septic shock, you may also experience more severe symptoms, such as:
- quick breathing
- rapid heart rate
- skin that’s sweaty or feels clammy
- a decrease in urination
- low blood pressure
- changes in mental state, such as feeling confused or disoriented
Risk factors for sepsis and septic shock
Some groups are more at risk for developing sepsis or septic shock from a bloodstream infection. These groups include:
- children younger than 1 year old
- adults older than 65 years old
- people with weakened immune systems
- individuals with underlying health conditions like diabetes, kidney disease, or cancer
- those that are already very sick or hospitalized
Other potential complications
In addition to sepsis and septic shock, bacteremia can cause other complications to occur. This can happen when the bacteria in your bloodstream travel to other areas of your body.
Additional complications can include:
- Meningitis: An inflammation of the tissues surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
- Pneumonia: A potentially serious respiratory infection.
- Endocarditis: An inflammation of the inner lining of the heart.
- Osteomyelitis: A bone infection.
- Infectious arthritis: An infection that occurs in a joint.
- Cellulitis: An infection of the skin.
- Peritonitis: An inflammation of the tissue surrounding your abdomen and organs.
When to see a doctor
The signs of a bloodstream infection can often be vague and can mimic other conditions. However, see your doctor promptly if you experience a fever, chills, or shaking that comes on suddenly.
This is particularly true if you’ve been in a situation that may put you at risk for a bloodstream infection. These situations include if you:
- are currently fighting an infection elsewhere in your body, such as a urinary tract infection (UTI) or pneumonia
- have recently undergone a tooth extraction, medical procedure, or surgery
- have recently been hospitalized
The bottom line
Bacteremia is when there are bacteria present in your bloodstream.
Sometimes, bacteremia can have no symptoms and clear on its own. Other times, it can cause a bloodstream infection that can develop into serious complications.
Many different bacteria can cause bacteremia. It can often occur due to another existing infection, a surgery, or by using a device like a breathing tube.
Timely treatment of bloodstream infections with antibiotics is necessary to prevent complications. If you believe you have a bloodstream infection, be sure to get prompt medical attention.