An Overview of Multiple Organ Dysfunction Syndrome


Published: 31 May 2023

Multiple organ dysfunction syndrome (MODS) carries a serious risk of mortality.

In order to prevent it from progressing to an irreversible stage, immediate detection and treatment are crucial (Procter 2022).

What is Multiple Organ Dysfunction Syndrome?

Multiple organ dysfunction syndrome (MODS) is defined as the progressive physiological dysfunction of two or more organs or organ systems where homeostasis cannot be maintained without intervention (Al-Khafaji 2020; Nickson 2020).

MODS is generally initiated by illness, injury or infection, causing a state of immunodepression and hypometabolism (Nickson 2020).

Rather than a single event, MODS is considered a continuum where the extent of dysfunction can vary greatly from mild impairment to irreversible failure (Al-Khafaji 2020).

Organs most commonly affected by MODS include the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys (Gu et al. 2018).

It is associated with significant mortality and morbidity, contributing to about 50% of deaths in intensive care units (Nickson 2020).

Causes of Multiple Organ Dysfunction Syndrome

MODS is induced by illness, injury or infection that triggers a systemic inflammatory response (known as systemic inflammatory response syndrome), resulting in tissue injury (Nickson 2020).

Potential causes include:

  • Sepsis
  • Major trauma
  • Burns
  • Pancreatitis
  • Aspiration syndromes
  • Blood transfusions
  • Autoimmune disease
  • Heat-related illness
  • Eclampsia
  • Poisons/toxins.

(Nickson 2020)

mods sepsis
Sepsis can trigger MODS.

Risk Factors for Multiple Organ Dysfunction Syndrome

  • An individual’s genetics may dictate the likelihood and severity of MODS following a trigger
  • A patient with premorbid organ dysfunction may be prone to further deterioration
  • Medications, therapies and ICU supports may contribute to organ injuries
  • A patient with an infection is at risk of MODS.

(Nickson 2020)

How to Assess for Multiple Organ Dysfunction Syndrome

  • Undertake a systems approach assessment (head-to-toe assessment).
  • Document and analyse data from the patient’s vital signs, taking into account any trends.
  • A SOFA score can be used in line with other assessment tools.

(Nickson 2020)

Presentation and Symptoms of Multiple Organ Dysfunction Syndrome

In order to be diagnosed with MODS, the patient should be experiencing dysfunction of at least two organs (this may be mild or severe) in addition to systemic inflammatory response syndrome (Nickson 2020).

Organ dysfunction may present as:

  • Acute kidney injury (AKI) and uraemic acidosis
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Encephalopathy
  • Gastrointestinal dysfunction
  • Hepatic dysfunction
  • Coagulopathy and bone marrow suppression
  • Acute neurological dysfunction.

(Nickson 2020)

The patient may display some of the following symptoms, depending on which organs are affected:

  • An altered mental state
  • A decrease in renal perfusion (decrease in urine output)
  • Respiratory deterioration
  • A decrease in cardiac function/output (e.g. low blood pressure, arrhythmia)
  • Deranged metabolic status
  • A compromised fluid balance
  • Pale, clammy, peripherally cool skin and faint pedal pulses.

(Procter 2022)

Systemic inflammatory response syndrome is defined as two or more of the following:

  • Temperature >38°C or <36°C
  • Heart rate >90 beats per minute
  • Respiratory rate >20 breaths per minute OR arterial carbon dioxide tension (PaCO2) <32 mm Hg
  • Abnormal amount of white blood cells (>12,000/µL, < 4,000/µL or >10% immature [band] forms).

(Boka 2020)

Treatment and Management of Multiple Organ Dysfunction Syndrome

MODS is difficult to treat, escalates quickly and is often fatal. Therefore, early detection is crucial in preventing its progression (Wang et al. 2017).

Positive patient outcomes rely on immediate recognition, ICU admission and invasive organ support (Gourd & Nikitas 2019). Management and treatment may include:

  • Identifying and treating the underlying causes, comorbidities or complications
  • Fluid resuscitation to increase perfusion
  • Support care and monitoring:

(Nickson 2020; Chapalain 2019; Scala & Pisani 2018)

Preventing Multiple Organ Dysfunction Syndrome

As a complication of an illness, injury or infection, MODS is difficult to prevent. Early recognition improves patient outcomes - this is the only way to prevent damage.

It is important to monitor patients closely and administer appropriate therapies to facilitate organ function (Al-Khafaji 2020).

  • Maintain an accurate fluid balance chart
  • Support the haemodynamic needs of the patient (identify low blood pressure, analyse trends, escalate to the medical team and treat early)
  • Identify any potential triggers of MODS
  • Ensure regular blood tests are performed
  • Decrease the risk of further organ damage if MODS is identified through early implementation of care.
mods fluid balance
Maintaining an accurate fluid balance chart is important for continuous patient monitoring and recognising possible issues.

Complications of Multiple Organ Dysfunction Syndrome

While MODS itself is the complication of an underlying condition, it represents a spectrum of dysfunction and can rapidly increase in severity (Wang et al. 2017).

In the later stages of MODS, the affected organs may completely lose function (multiple organ failure). This carries a mortality risk of up to 80 to 96% and may not be reversible. Therefore, preventing MODS from progressing into organ failure is crucial (Wang et al. 2017).

If the patient becomes increasingly unwell, they may require intensive care admission and aggressive treatment to maximise organ function.


MODS is a serious condition and can be life-threatening if not addressed early. If a patient presents with MODS, escalate care as necessary and support the affected organs.

Note: This article is intended as a refresher and should not replace best-practice care. Always refer to your facility's policy on preventing and responding to deterioration and multiple organ dysfunction syndrome.

Additional Resources


Test Your Knowledge

Question 1 of 3

Which one of the following is a potential trigger of multiple organ dysfunction syndrome?


educator profile image
Ausmed View profile
Ausmed’s editorial team is committed to providing high-quality, well-researched and reputable education to our users, free of any commercial bias or conflict of interest. All education produced by Ausmed is developed in consultation with healthcare professionals and undergoes a rigorous review process to ensure the relevancy of all healthcare information and updates to changes in practice. If you have identified an issue with the education offered by Ausmed or wish to submit feedback to Ausmed's editorial team, please email with your concerns.