Under normal circumstances, the circulatory system and the blood should be sterile; the circulatory system has no normal microbiota. Because the system is closed, there are no easy portals of entry into the circulatory system for microbes. Those that are able to breach the body’s physical barriers and enter the bloodstream encounter a host of circulating immune defenses, such as antibodies, complement proteins, phagocytes, and other immune cells. Microbes often gain access to the circulatory system through a break in the skin (e.g., wounds, needles, intravenous catheters, insect bites) or spread to the circulatory system from infections in other body sites. For example, microorganisms causing pneumonia or renal infection may enter the local circulation of the lung or kidney and spread from there throughout the circulatory network.
If microbes in the bloodstream are not quickly eliminated, they can spread rapidly throughout the body, leading to serious, even life-threatening infections. Various terms are used to describe conditions involving microbes in the circulatory system. The term bacteremia refers to bacteria in the blood. If bacteria are reproducing in the blood as they spread, this condition is called septicemia. The presence of viruses in the blood is called viremia. Microbial toxins can also be spread through the circulatory system, causing a condition termed toxemia.
Microbes and microbial toxins in the blood can trigger an inflammatory response so severe that the inflammation damages host tissues and organs more than the infection itself. This counterproductive immune response is called systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS), and it can lead to the life-threatening condition known as sepsis. Sepsis is characterized by the production of excess cytokines that leads to classic signs of inflammation such as fever, vasodilation, and edema. In a patient with sepsis, the inflammatory response becomes dysregulated and disproportionate to the threat of infection. Critical organs such as the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys become dysfunctional, resulting in increased heart and respiratory rates, and disorientation. If not treated promptly and effectively, patients with sepsis can go into shock and die.
Certain infections can cause inflammation in the heart and blood vessels. Inflammation of the endocardium, the inner lining of the heart, is called endocarditis and can result in damage to the heart valves severe enough to require surgical replacement. Inflammation of the pericardium, the sac surrounding the heart, is called pericarditis. The term myocarditis refers to the inflammation of the heart’s muscle tissue. Pericarditis and myocarditis can cause fluid to accumulate around the heart, resulting in congestive heart failure. Inflammation of blood vessels is called vasculitis. Although somewhat rare, vasculitis can cause blood vessels to become damaged and rupture; as blood is released, small red or purple spots called petechiae appear on the skin. If the damage of tissues or blood vessels is severe, it can result in reduced blood flow to the surrounding tissues. This condition is called ischemia, and it can be very serious. In severe cases, the affected tissues can die and become necrotic; these situations may require surgical debridement or amputation.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology