Infection is both a common cause of admission to intensive care and the major secondary complication. Critically ill patients are predisposed to further nosocomial infections as many of their natural barriers and defence mechanisms have been lost, altered or penetrated. They are often heavily instrumented, sedated and immobile. They often develop immune hyporesponsiveness as part of their critical disease process, notwithstanding any therapeutic immune suppression they may have received. The high antibiotic load given to these sick patients encourages colonisation by pathogenic organisms and subsequent development of infections by multidrug resistant and/or atypical (e.g. fungi) organisms.

Sepsis is defined as the systemic response to an insult of proven or high likelihood of infection. Whereas infection can be applied to a localised phenomenon, sepsis initiates a systemic inflammatory response thereby affecting distant organs.

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