What Are the 3 Stages of Sepsis?

    As a personal injury attorney representing plaintiffs in medical malpractice and negligence cases, I often see clients who have developed sepsis due to a healthcare provider's failure to properly diagnose and treat an infection.

    Sepsis is a clinical syndrome that develops as a complication of severe infection and is characterized by a dysregulated immune system as well as systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS). In short, sepsis is a life-threatening condition, typically treated in an intensive care unit (ICU), that arises when the body’s response to infection spirals out of control and damages its own tissues and organs. It progresses rapidly and can lead to shock, multiple organ failure, and death, especially if not recognized early and treated promptly. And according to the CDC, cases of sepsis death for Americans increase in both men and women with age.

    Sepsis progresses through three deadly stages: sepsis, severe sepsis, and septic shock. Understanding these stages, as well as an early diagnosis, is crucial for medical professionals to quickly identify sepsis and provide appropriate treatment before it’s too late. As we’ll see, healthcare providers who fail to properly recognize and treat sepsis can be held liable for medical negligence.

    What are the three stages of sepsis?

    First Stage of Sepsis: Sepsis

    Sepsis is the first stage and is characterized by a systemic inflammatory response triggered by an infection. An infection that progresses to this stage has entered the bloodstream and prompts the immune system to go into overdrive. While a healthy immune response fights an infection, a septic immune response overreacts and starts attacking the body’s own tissues and organs.

    Sepsis can differ based on the type of infection and sources of infection. Common infections that can lead to sepsis include respiratory infections like pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and infections in the abdomen and other parts of the body. Bacterial infections are most often the culprit, although sepsis can also be caused by parasites, fungal infections, and viral infections. Unfortunately, sepsis can also be a result of nursing home abuse and neglect.

    Patients who have received a sepsis diagnosis will typically experience identifiable symptoms.

    The symptoms of sepsis are:

    - Fever above 101°F or a low body temperature below 96.8°F

    - Heart rate higher than 90 beats per minute

    - Respiratory rate higher than 20 breaths per minute

    - Probable or confirmed infection

    While these signs may seem generic and mild at first, quick recognition and timely treatment is key. Sepsis can be subtle in its early stages, making it easy to miss without careful assessment and monitoring. As an attorney, I see many cases where healthcare providers fail to appreciate early sepsis symptoms and do not start treatment with broad-spectrum antibiotics and fluid resuscitation. This delays diagnosis and allows the condition to rapidly advance.

    Second Stage of Sepsis: Severe Sepsis

    If sepsis is not recognized and treated aggressively at its initial stage, it can progress to severe sepsis within hours. This stage is characterized by organ dysfunction, with specific signs related to inadequate oxygen delivery to vital organs.

    Symptoms of severe sepsis include:

    - Altered mental status, such as confusion or disorientation

    - Low urine output, less than 0.5 ml/kg/hr for 2 hours

    - Decreased platelet count - Abnormal heart pumping function

    - Difficulty breathing, including shallow rapid breathing and shortness of breath

    - Patchy rashes or mottling of skin

    - Drop in blood pressure

    Severe sepsis indicates that vital organs are not getting enough oxygen and are starting to shut down. Quick administration of IV fluids and medications to improve blood flow and increase blood pressure is critical to try and stop the progression to stage 3.

    Third Stage of Sepsis: Septic Shock

    The final stage, septic shock, represents the most dangerous complication and has a staggering mortality rate around 50 percent. Septic shock occurs when sepsis leads to life-threatening low blood pressure that cuts off perfusion to vital organs and tissues.

    Symptoms of septic shock include:

    - Blood pressure less than 90/60 mm Hg

    - Need for vasopressor medications to increase blood pressure

    - Blood lactate level greater than 2 mmol/L

    Septic shock can lead to ischemia and cell death in vital organs like the heart, lungs, kidneys, and liver. This is what ultimately causes organ failure and death in many sepsis patients.

    Immediate treatment with IV fluid resuscitation, vasopressor medications, and oxygen therapy is imperative to try and reverse septic shock before permanent organ damage or death occurs. Sepsis patients in shock are at high risk of developing acute respiratory distress syndrome, kidney failure requiring dialysis, heart dysfunction, and multiple organ dysfunction syndrome.

    Risk Factors for Sepsis

    Several factors can elevate the risk of developing sepsis. Newborns face an increased risk due to their developing immune systems, making it crucial for immediate medical attention if signs of infection arise. Individuals with a weakened immune system, whether due to medical treatments or conditions, are also more susceptible to sepsis.

    Additionally, those with underlying health conditions, such as diabetes or chronic diseases, like kidney disease, or those with a history of certain medical conditions, like blood clots or heart failure, are at a heightened risk. This underscores the importance of prompt medical intervention to mitigate the potential for sepsis complications.

    The Takeaway: Sepsis is Medical Emergency

    As we have seen, sepsis represents a true medical emergency requiring expert assessment, close monitoring, and urgent treatment. The risk of sepsis escalating quickly makes early recognition in its initial stage critically important. Any delay in diagnosis or treatment can lead to multi-organ failure, permanent injuries, and death.

    For this reason, healthcare providers must be vigilant to the signs of sepsis and treat it as the medical emergency that it is. Failing to properly diagnose and treat sepsis in a timely manner constitutes medical negligence. As an attorney representing victims of sepsis and their families, I work hard to hold healthcare professionals accountable when substandard care leads to harm or death from sepsis.

    If you have lost a loved one to sepsis or suffered catastrophic injuries from sepsis, it is important to speak with an attorney right away to understand your legal options. An experienced personal injury or medical malpractice attorney can investigate what went wrong and help you pursue maximum compensation for your devastating losses. Sepsis cases require early investigation, so do not delay in reaching out for legal advice.

    If you have suffered harm due to sepsis, either directly or the loss of a loved one, it is important to take action quickly to preserve your rights.

    Here are the key next steps:

    Report What Happened

    Start by formally reporting what happened to the appropriate state regulatory agency that oversees healthcare providers. This creates an important record of the incident that can be crucial evidence later on.

    Gather Documents

    Work to gather all relevant medical records, bills, and other documentation about the case. Be sure to get records from before, during, and after the sepsis incident. Medical records can provide insight into what care was provided and when, as well as reveal missed opportunities for timely diagnosis and treatment.

    Consult with a Medical Malpractice Lawyer

    The most important next step is to meet with an experienced personal injury or medical malpractice attorney. Share what happened and provide them your documentation. They can assess if you have a valid case and advise you on next steps for seeking compensation.

    Retaining legal counsel provides many advantages, including:

    - Having an expert on your side who understands sepsis cases and the legal process. Sepsis litigation can be very complex.

    - Lawyers have resources and access to consult with medical experts. They can identify if standards of care were breached.

    - Attorneys know how to thoroughly investigate sepsis cases, identify all liable parties, demonstrate harm done, and calculate current and future damages.

    - Lawyers handle negotiations with insurance companies and skillfully negotiate fair settlement offers.

    - They will take a case to trial if a satisfactory settlement cannot be reached.

    - Contingency fee arrangements mean no payment is required upfront and legal fees come out of any final settlement or award amount.

    Starting the Legal Process

    From there, an attorney will start the litigation process by sending notice letters to all the healthcare providers involved, filing a lawsuit to beat the statutes of limitations, gathering evidence through discovery, taking depositions, and demonstrating how failures to properly diagnose and treat sepsis led to avoidable injuries or death.

    Sepsis cases demand complex legal skills and resources to establish liability and achieve justice. Do not delay in contacting an attorney for a consultation after experiencing harm from sepsis.

    In Illinois, like most states, medical malpractice cases follow general tort law procedures but have some unique considerations. Here is an overview of key aspects of handling a sepsis malpractice case in Illinois:

    Statute of Limitations

    In Illinois, the statute of limitations for filing a medical malpractice lawsuit is 2 years from the date the injury occurred, or within 2 years from when the injury was discovered. This highlights the importance of contacting an attorney quickly to get the litigation process started.

    Expert Witnesses

    Expert testimony is essential in sepsis cases to establish the proper standards of care and show how they were breached. In Illinois, the expert witness must be a licensed physician who can demonstrate expertise in the specific issues involved in the case. Extensive expert testimony is required in sepsis cases given the complex medical issues.


    Illinois allows plaintiffs to seek compensation for economic damages like medical bills or lost wages, as well as non-economic damages for pain and suffering. In a wrongful death sepsis case, surviving family members can also claim loss of consortium for their grief, sorrow, and loss of companionship. Punitive damages may also be possible if negligence was egregious.

    State Oversight

    In Illinois, the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation oversees complaints against healthcare professionals through its Medial Disciplinary Board. Filing a complaint represents an important step in documenting sepsis negligence.

    Attorney Research

    When researching sepsis attorneys and law firms in Illinois, it is advisable to look for lawyers with specific experience handling sepsis and medical malpractice cases in the state. They will understand the proper procedures, experts, and courts.

    Handling a sepsis medical malpractice case requires in-depth knowledge of Illinois medical negligence laws and litigation experience. An attorney well-versed in this area can advise victims and families and represent their rights every step of the way.

    Trial or Settlement 

    The majority of medical malpractice lawsuits settle before an actual trial begins. But if needed, my firm has the resources and experience to win serious medical malpractice cases in court.

    I understand that facing lawsuits can be daunting, but there are situations where they become necessary, especially when insurance companies are reluctant to offer reasonable compensation after an injury due to a medical professional’s negligence. Please be assured that I possess the determination and legal expertise needed to secure the maximum recovery for you, whether it's through a favorable settlement or a successful trial outcome. The decision will always be based on what aligns best with your interests.

    The aftermath of an injury or death due to sepsis can be an overwhelming period, with a multitude of legal, financial, and practical considerations to address. Please remember that you don't have to navigate these challenges alone. I am here to provide a free consultation and offer you legal advice as a dedicated sepsis medical malpractice attorney specializing in personal injury law. Your well-being and legal rights are my top priorities.

    To contact our office, call (630)684-2332 or visit our website at You can also find patient and family resources provided by the Sepsis Alliance at


    Mario Palermo is the Founder and Lead Attorney at Palermo Law Group in Oak Brook, Illinois. For the past 26 years, he has worked tirelessly to help injury victims and their families in their times of need. He is a seasoned authority on civil litigation, and also a member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum, a prestigious group of trial lawyers who have won million and multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements. Mr. Palermo has been named a “Leading Lawyer” by his peers in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022.

    Request a Free Legal Consultation

    Recently Published

    Recent Outcomes

    $1.3 Million

    Mr. Palermo obtained $1.3 million dollars for an airline employee who was injured on the job.


    Palermo obtained $800,000 for the family of 63-year-old woman who died after gallbladder removal surgery.


    Palermo obtained $400,000 for a 28-year-old woman from Aurora that was the victim of a hit-and-run.