What is septic shock and how did it kill Muhammad Ali?

Over the past weekend, the family of Muhammad Ali released a statement saying the three-time Heavyweight Champion died from septic shock.

What is septic shock and how did it kill Ali? Here’s a quick look at the life-threatening condition.

What is septic shock?

Septic shock happens when a body-wide infection leads to low blood pressure, blood clots, organ damage then organ failure. It is sometimes called bacteremic shock; endotoxic shock; septicemic shock or “warm” shock.

What causes it?

An infection that spreads throughout your body. The primary infection is most often caused by bacteria, but can also be by the result of fungi, viruses, or parasites. The infection that leads to septic shock is often found in the lungs, brain, skin, abdominal organs or urinary tract. It can, however, begin in any part of your body.

How does it kill you?

The infection overwhelms the body's defenses,  lowers blood pressure and slows or blocks blood supply to organs, causing  them to fail.


Septic shock can affect any part of the body, including the heart, brain, kidneys, liver or intestines. Symptoms may include:

  • Cool, pale arms and legs
  • High or very low temperature, chills
  • Light-headedness
  • Little or no urine
  • Low blood pressure, especially when standing
  • Palpitations
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Restlessness, agitation, lethargy, or confusion
  • Shortness of breath
  • Skin rash or discoloration

Septic shock is a medical emergency. Go directly to an emergency department if you develop symptoms or think you may be suffering from septic shock.

Who is more likely to suffer from septic shock?

People whose  immune systems are weakened are at risk of developing septic shock if they get an infection. Also, the young and the elderly are at greater risk.


Patients will often be put on oxygen to help with breathing. They will be given antibiotics to fight the infection and possibly an IV with a saline solution to help increase blood pressure. Other, more advance treatments will be started as the patient becomes more sick.


Generally there is not a good outcome when someone develops septic shock. Between 25 percent and 50 percent of those diagnosed with septic shock will die from it.

Can you prevent septic shock?

You should promptly treat any bacterial infection, but some cases of septic shock simply cannot be prevented. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you:

  • Get vaccinated against the flu, pneumonia, and any other infections that could lead to sepsis. Talk to your doctor for more information.
  • Prevent infections that can lead to sepsis by cleaning scrapes and wound and practicing good hygiene (e.g., hand washing, bathing regularly)
  • If you have an infection, look for signs like: fever, chills, rapid breathing and heart rate, rash, confusion, and disorientation. Get to a hospital as quickly as possible.

 Sources:  emedicinehealth.com; WebMD.com; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention