How is a physical exam for sepsis conducted?

Updated: Oct 07, 2020
  • Author: Andre Kalil, MD, MPH; Chief Editor: Michael R Pinsky, MD, CM, Dr(HC), FCCP, FAPS, MCCM  more...
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Answer

The physical examination should first involve assessment of the patient’s general condition, including an assessment of airway, breathing, and circulation (ie, the ABCs), as well as mental status. An acutely ill, flushed, and toxic appearance is observed universally in patients with serious infections.

Examine vital signs, and observe for signs of hypoperfusion. Carefully examine the patient for evidence of localized infection. Ensure that the patient’s body temperature is measured accurately. Rectal temperatures should be obtained, as oral and tympanic temperatures are not always reliable. Fever may be absent, but patients generally have tachypnea and tachycardia.

Pay attention to the patient’s skin color and temperature. Pallor or grayish or mottled skin are signs of poor tissue perfusion seen in septic shock. In the early stages of sepsis, cardiac output is well maintained or even increased. The vasodilation may result in warm skin, warm extremities, and normal capillary refill (warm shock). As sepsis progresses, stroke volume and cardiac output fall. The patients begin to manifest the signs of poor perfusion, including cool skin, cool extremities, and delayed capillary refill (cold shock). In sepsis, symptoms may include decreased urine output and cyanosis (blueish discoloration of the lips and/or digits).


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