The importance of early treatment of common infections has been underscored by the recent death of Muppet creater Jim Henson from blood poisoning and septic shock.

"Early and aggressive treatment of an infection before it releases toxins into the bloodstream is needed to prevent septic shock," says Dr. Alexander McMeeking, a specialist in infectious disease at New York University Medical Center."An infected wound or burn, a urinary tract infection, or symptoms of a possible internal infection, such as general weakness and fever, especially if accompanied by coughing, require prompt attention," McMeeking advised.

The incidence of septic shock has more than doubled in the past decade. Ironically, a significant percentage of that increase is attributed to medical advances against other diseases.

Chemotherapy for cancer and immunosuppressant drugs to prevent the rejection of organ transplants weaken the body's defenses against the bacteria, fungi and viruses that cause infections and are present everywhere in the environment, Mc-Meeking explained.

"A growing body of evidence indicates certain common infectious agents, such as the streptococcal bacteria that killed Mr. Henson, are mutating into more deadly strains," he added.

While the prospect of someday being able to treat septic shock directly is encouraging, physicians can prevent most cases of septic shock through early recognition and appropriate treatment of infection.

Once in the bloodstream, the infectious agents release poisonous byproducts called pyrogenic toxins. In response, the body's defense mechanisms produce inflammatory agents which can damage blood vessels throughout the body.

As a result, less oxygen-rich blood reaches the body's organs, which begin to fail. This condition is known as septicemia or sepsis syndrome, which can lead to septic shock.

The inflammatory agents also damage small blood vessels and cells in the lungs, McMeeking said. Inflammation and fluid in the lungs leads to an advanced pneumonialike condition called adult respiratory distress syndrome, the most common cause of death in septic shock.

Once the toxins are unleashed, little can be done except to provide antibiotics to help the body fight the toxins. Other therapeutic measures may include drugs to constrict dilated blood vessels, and mechanical ventilation to help keep the lungs functioning.