Septic shock is a life-threatening condition that happens when your blood pressure drops to a dangerously low level after an infection.

The infection will first cause a response from the body known as sepsis (see the box on this page). If sepsis is not treated, it can lead to severe sepsis and septic shock. 

Read more about the causes of septic shock.

Symptoms of septic shock

Symptoms of septic shock include:

  • low blood pressure that makes you feel dizzy when you stand up
  • a change in your mental state, such as confusion or disorientation
  • diarrhoea
  • nausea and vomiting
  • cold, clammy and pale skin

These symptoms usually follow on from sepsis, which begins with weakness, chills, a rapid heart rate and rapid breathing rate. Read more about the preceding signs of sepsis.

Septic shock is a medical emergency. If you think that you or someone in your care has this, phone 999 and ask for an ambulance.

Treating septic shock

If you have septic shock, you will usually be admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU) as an emergency so your body’s functions and organs can be supported while the infection is treated.

Treatment may include:

  • oxygen therapy
  • fluids given directly through a vein (intravenous)
  • medication to increase your blood flow
  • antibiotics 
  • surgery, in some cases

Read more about treating septic shock.

Complications of septic shock

A person's chance of surviving septic shock will depend on the cause of infection, the number of organs that have failed and how soon treatment is started.

Complications of septic shock can include:

  • lungs not being able to take in enough oxygen (respiratory failure)
  • the heart not being able to pump enough blood around the body (heart failure)
  • kidney injury or failure
  • abnormal blood clotting

These are serious health conditions that will need to be treated urgently. Septic shock can be fatal because of complications such as these.


Sepsis occurs when an infection spreads through the blood, causing symptoms to develop throughout the whole body.

Sepsis is often referred to as either blood poisoning or septicaemia, although it could be argued that both terms are not entirely accurate:

  • sepsis is where the body's defence mechanisms respond to an infection in some part of the body – resulting in symptoms such as fever, raised pulse rate, raised breathing and confusion
  • septicaemia (another name for blood poisoning) refers to a bacterial infection of the blood – resulting in the spread of infection and damage to organs

Read more about sepsis (blood poisoning).

Page last reviewed: 21/03/2013

Next review due: 21/03/2015