Shock can occur after any kind of trauma: a severe allergic reaction, poisoning, heat stroke, burns, or any other severe stress on the body. But the phenomenon can also ensue from severe dehydration, excessive vomiting, or extreme diarrhea. Some types of infections and certain heart or kidney problems that reduce blood flow can cause shock as well. What happens when the body goes into shock is that blood — and the oxygen it carries — can’t get to vital organs, and the organs begin to fail. Treating shock early can save lives; left untreated, it can be life-threatening. It’s essential to recognize the signs of shock and treat it quickly.

What are the signs of shock?

Signs and symptoms of shock include one or more of the following:

  • Cool, pale, clammy skin
  • Unusually high or low temperature
  • Rapid and weak heartbeat
  • Unusually fast or slow breathing
  • Abnormally low blood pressure
  • Confusion or anxiety
  • Faintness, weakness, dizziness, or loss of consciousness
  • Dull look to the eyes
  • Dilated (enlarged) pupils
  • Intense thirst
  • Reduced urine flow

What to do

Although it’s important to act quickly, you must remain calm and focused. Because shock can accompany many different kinds of emergency situations, be alert for all signs of injury, including broken bones and bleeding.

  • First, call 911.
  • Check the person’s airway, breathing, and circulation. If needed, begin CPR.
  • If the person is conscious, have the person lie down and elevate the legs about 12 inches. This helps increase blood flow to the head. Caution: Unless there’s immediate danger in keeping the person where they are, do not move the victim if you suspect a neck or back injury. Doing so could worsen a spinal cord injury.
  • Try to keep the person from moving unnecessarily. This is especially important if you suspect an injury to the spine.
  • Treat the wounds, injuries, or illnesses such as broken bones or bleeding that can produce a condition of shock.
  • It’s important to control the person’s temperature while you wait for help. If the person is cold, keep him warm and comfortable by wrapping a blanket or a towel around him. If his temperature is elevated, wet a towel and put it on his forehead. Do not give the person anything to drink, however. Someone in shock may vomit anything taken orally, which could result in choking. If the person does need fluid, medical workers can attach an intravenous line.
  • If the victim vomits, turn the person gently to one side and make sure that fluid can drain from the mouth. This prevents choking.
  • Loosen tight clothing.
  • While you wait for help, continue to monitor the person’s condition. If breathing slows or stops, administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

References Shock: First Aid.

National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Trauma and Shock Fact Sheet.

American Medical Association. Handbook of First Aid and Emergency Care.

American College of Emergency Physicians. First Aid Manual.

The American Red Cross First Aid and Safety Handbook.

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