This spring there were numerous stories in the media about the passing of Oscar-winning actress Patty Duke, star of TV’s “The Patty Duke Show.”  Many of these articles mentioned that Ms. Duke died as a result of sepsis from a ruptured intestine.

Her death announcement was a major milestone for sepsis awareness. According to Thomas Heymann of the Sepsis Alliance, the more people who are aware of sepsis infections, the more likelihood that lives will be saved.

The fact that it was disclosed that Patty Duke’s cause of death was sepsis is relatively new. In the past, Heymann said, “It would have been left as a ‘complication of surgery’ or an infection.”  But sepsis is not a complication — it’s sepsis, a reaction to infection that leads to systemic organ failure. Sepsis kills more than 258,000 Americans annually, making it the ninth-leading cause of disease-related deaths in the U.S. While most people can fully recover from sepsis, some survivors are left with missing limbs due to amputation or permanent organ damage.

Sepsis is most common in those with compromised immune systems, like the very old and very young, and those with diseases like cancer or diabetes. Sepsis can result from a simple wound or scrape or a burn that was improperly cleaned.

Sepsis was the primary or secondary reason for 1.6 million hospitalizations in 2009, and  the cause of the most expensive hospitalizations that year, totaling over $15 billion in hospital costs.

The challenge is that sepsis symptoms can be hard for doctors to discern from a simple infection which could heal on its own.

Sepsis is usually thought of as a hospital-acquired infection, therefore doctors are more likely to check for it among their hospital patients. However, two-thirds of sepsis cases are first discovered in the emergency room, which means that they were acquired outside of the hospital.

You could save your own life or that of a loved one by knowing what sepsis is.

The signs of sepsis can be broken down into a simple acronym:

S – Shivering, fever, or feeling very cold
E – Extreme pain or general discomfort, as in “worst ever”
P – Discolored or pale skin
S – Sleepy, confused, or difficult to wake up
I –  Feeling like you might die
S – Shortness of breath

Time is of the essence when it comes to sepsis. Each hour of delay in treatment after six hours has been linked to a 7.6 percent decrease in survival. Treatment within the first hour of a drop in blood pressure – another tell-tale sign of sepsis – improves survival rate to 80 percent.

If you suspect you have sepsis, it’s important to actually say the word “sepsis” to your doctors. Tell them, “I am concerned about sepsis,” in order to get the most timely treatment possible for a potential infection complication.

Your life could depend on it.