Biting your nails may be a little gross but it's not going to kill you. Right?
Not so. Luke Hanoman, a 28-year-old dad from Southport in the UK, ended up in the hospital with a life-threatening case of sepsis. The incident started because Hanoman was biting his fingernails and accidentally tore off a small piece of skin.
It hurt a little but he didn't think much of it, he told The Sun. He started to develop flu-like symptoms (think: fever, chills, and cold sweats) but continued to go to work saying he'd sleep it off at the weekend. Meanwhile, his finger started to swell and he felt this "unbearable" throbbing.
Friday evening he went to bed and didn't wake up until 2pm the following day – a behavior that was so unexpected it set alarm bells ringing. His mom called up the National Health Service (NHS) helpline and explained his symptoms to a trained professional. They said he had 24 hours to get to an emergency room.
At the hospital, Hanoman was put on a stretcher and administered an IV drip. He was put under 24-hour observation and treated with antibiotics for four days straight last July.
Fortunately, Hanoman fully recovered but the doctors told him he was lucky to be alive.
“The doctors and nurses were really good. They didn’t tell me how bad it was because I think they were trying not to worry me too much. When I was feeling better, they told me I was lucky to be alive,” he said.
Though Hanoman's case is highly unusual (hence newsworthy), sepsis and septic shock can be triggered by any infection – including one as seemingly minor as a ripped nail. It's not the infection itself but the immune system's response to that infection that is to blame.
Normally, an infection is localized and the immune system can prevent it spreading to other parts of the body. However, if an infection is particularly severe, it might spread before the immune system has a chance to restrain it, causing the immune system to go into overdrive and an inflammation to flare throughout the whole body. If caught early, it can be treated with antibiotics.
Worldwide, there are roughly 30 million cases of sepsis per year and 6 million deaths, but this is probably a conservative estimate. In the US, the CDC says more than 1.5 million patients are affected every year and 250,000 die as a result. Young children and the elderly are particularly at risk, but as Hanoman's story shows, it can hit anyone at any age.
And so it's important to be aware of the symptoms. To help, the UK Sepsis Trust has come up with this handy acrostic:
Slurred speech or confusion
Extreme shivering or muscle pain
Passing no urine (in a day)
It feels like you’re going to die
Skin mottled or discolored