The hematologic system as a marker of organ dysfunction in sepsis

Mayo Clin Proc. 2003 Jul;78(7):869-81. doi: 10.4065/78.7.869.


Sepsis with acute organ dysfunction (severe sepsis) results from a systemic proinflammatory and procoagulant response to infection. Organ dysfunction in the patient with sepsis is associated with increased mortality. Although most organs have discrete anatomical boundaries and carry out unified functions, the hematologic system is poorly circumscribed and serves several unrelated functions. This review addresses the hematologic changes associated with sepsis and provides a framework for prompt diagnosis and rational drug therapy. Data sources used include published research and review articles in the English language related to hematologic alterations in animal models of sepsis and in critically ill patients. Hematologic changes are present in virtually every patient with severe sepsis. Leukocytosis, anemia, thrombocytopenia, and activation of the coagulation cascade are the most common abnormalities. Despite theoretical advantages of using granulocyte colony-stimulating factor to enhance leukocyte function and/or circulating numbers, large clinical trials with these growth factors are lacking. Recent studies support a reduction in the red blood cell transfusion threshold and the use of erythropoietin treatment to reduce transfusion requirements. Treatment of thrombocytopenia depends on the cause and clinical context but may include platelet transfusions and discontinuation of heparin or other inciting drugs. The use of activated protein C may provide a survival benefit in subsets of patients with severe sepsis. The hematologic system should not be overlooked when assessing a patient with severe sepsis. A thorough clinical evaluation and panel of laboratory tests that relate to this organ system should be as much a part of the work-up as taking the patient's blood pressure, monitoring renal function, or measuring liver enzymes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Blood Transfusion
  • Erythropoietin / therapeutic use*
  • Hematologic Diseases* / diagnosis
  • Hematologic Diseases* / epidemiology
  • Hematologic Diseases* / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Sepsis* / blood
  • Sepsis* / drug therapy
  • Sepsis* / physiopathology


  • Erythropoietin