Septic and toxic shock are complications of infection, rather than representing an infection in themselves. Severe bacterial infection causes a multitude of effects in the body. The body attempts to fight the infection, but sometimes the immune response is amplified to an abnormal degree.
Harmful products can be released by different parts of the body’s immune system (white blood cells, blood vessels, the liver) which lead in turn to fever, low blood pressure, and failure of several of the body’s main organ systems. This is known as “septic shock” and can occur in response to any bacterial infection that is severe.
Products released by the bacteria themselves may also contribute to this cascade of events. Low blood pressure means that vital organs such as the kidney, liver, and brain do not receive enough blood, hence urine flow may stop, and the patient may become drowsy or confused. The lungs may also become inflamed, even if they are not directly involved in the infection. This is known as “shock lung” or ARDS (respiratory distress syndrome), and prevents oxygen from reaching the rest of the body. This will have obvious further consequences for vital organ systems, including the heart, lung, brain, kidney and liver. Blood clotting may also become abnormal, and bruising or bleeding may be seen.
Once in hospital, the priorities are to improve the blood pressure and oxygen intake. Low blood pressure is treated by filling up the blood vessels with intravenous fluids. If this does not work, doctors then have to use powerful drugs to get the heart to pump more effectively, although the heart may not be able to respond to these drugs properly. This will be particularly true of patients with heart disease already.
Patients may be moved to an intensive care unit where the heart and other organ systems can be monitored more safely. Oxygen intake is improved by giving the patient oxygen to breathe via a mask. If the patient is very drowsy, or if the lung damage is severe, doctors may decide to put a tube into the windpipe (intubation) in order to connect the patient’s lungs to a ventilator.
Other organ systems will be monitored closely and treated if any problems are identified. If the kidneys fail, waste products can be temporarily removed from the body by filtering the blood, similar to methods used in kidney dialysis. Most of these procedures are considered temporary measures, to maintain the rest of the body, whilst the infection is being treated. Occasionally, doctors are unable to save the patient. Sometimes, the lung damage worsens during treatment, such that oxygen just cannot pass from the lungs into the bloodstream.
Alternatively, the fall in blood pressure may be so catastrophic that recovery is impossible. In these circumstances, other organ systems are likely to have failed at the same time.
Bacteria like streps (and also Staphylococcus aureus) make a number of toxins that, on their own, can trigger a huge and potentially harmful inflammatory response in people. The effects are similar to septic shock: fever, low blood pressure, and failure of several of the body’s main organ systems.
The group A strep can cause a characteristic rash or redness (“erythema”) which turns whitish if pressed (“blanching”). This is known as “toxic shock” and is not thought to occur with GBS disease, mainly because the particular toxins causing toxic shock have not been identified in GBS.
However, because the clinical signs of ‘toxic shock’ and ‘septic shock’ overlap somewhat, doctors may sometimes use the term toxic shock loosely. This should not have any effect on treatment, which is always guided by the exact clinical condition of the patient and the exact bug that has been identified.
Staphylococcal Toxic Shock
Streptococcal Toxic Shock
The group A strep produces a family of toxins very similar to those produced by S. aureus, and in the late 1980’s, it was recognised that patients with serious group A strep infections could develop a septic shock illness that has strong resemblance to staph toxic shock. The rash in both conditions was very similar to the rash seen in scarlet fever, a condition known to accompany some cases of strep sore throat. Streptococcal toxic shock is more devastating than staph toxic shock, because the bacteria invariably have entered the bloodstream. Thus, the patient is fighting both septic and toxic shock together. The death rate from strep toxic shock can be high though recovery chances are improved with good intensive care support, and adequate treatment of the underlying infection. Group C and G streps are believed to have caused cases of toxic shock, but these cases are rare.