The pathogenesis of sepsis

Ann Intern Med. 1991 Sep 15;115(6):457-69. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-115-6-457.


Sepsis and its sequelae (sepsis syndrome and septic shock) are increasingly common and are still potentially lethal diagnoses. Many mediators of the pathogenesis of sepsis have recently been described. These include tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF alpha), interleukins, platelet activating factor, leukotrienes, thromboxane A2, and activators of the complement cascade. Neutrophil and platelet activation may also play a role. Other agents that may participate in the sepsis cascade include adhesion molecules, kinins, thrombin, myocardial depressant substance, beta-endorphin, and heat shock proteins. Endothelium-derived relaxing factor and endothelin-1 are released from the endothelium and seem to exert a regulatory effect, counterbalancing each other. A central mediator of sepsis does not seem to exist, although TNF alpha has been commonly proposed for this role. Animal studies are difficult to extrapolate to the clinical setting because of cross-species differences and variations in experimental design. Rather than being caused by any single pathogenic mechanism, it is more likely that sepsis is related to the state of activation of the target cell, the nearby presence of other mediators, and the ability of the target cell to release other mediators. Also important is the downregulation or negative feedback of these mediators or the generation of natural inflammation inhibitors, such as interleukin-4 and interleukin-8. Endothelial damage in sepsis probably results from persistent and repetitive inflammatory insults. Eventually, these insults produce sufficient damage that downregulation can no longer occur; this leads to a state of metabolic anarchy in which the body can no longer control its own inflammatory response.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacterial Infections* / epidemiology
  • Bacterial Infections* / metabolism
  • Bacterial Infections* / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Interleukins / biosynthesis
  • Sepsis* / epidemiology
  • Sepsis* / metabolism
  • Sepsis* / physiopathology
  • Shock, Septic / epidemiology
  • Shock, Septic / metabolism
  • Shock, Septic / physiopathology
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha / biosynthesis*


  • Interleukins
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha