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What is shock?

Shock is a life-threatening medical condition as a result of insufficient blood flow throughout the body. Shock often accompanies severe injury or illness. Medical shock is a medical emergency and can lead to other conditions such as lack of oxygen in the body’s tissues (hypoxia), heart attack (cardiac arrest) or organ damage. It requires immediate treatment as symptoms can worsen rapidly.

Medical shock is different than emotional or psychological shock that can occur following a traumatic or frightening emotional event.

There are 4 types of shock:

  • Septic shock results from bacteria multiplying in the blood and releasing toxins. Common causes of this are pneumonia, urinary tract infections, skin infections (cellulitis), intra-abdominal infections (such as a ruptured appendix), and meningitis.
  • Anaphylactic shock is a type of severe hypersensitivity or allergic reaction. Causes include allergy to insect stings, medicines, or foods (nuts, berries, seafood), etc.
  • Cardiogenic shock happens when the heart is damaged and unable to supply sufficient blood to the body. This can be the end result of a heart attack or congestive heart failure.
  • Hypovolemic shock is caused by severe blood and fluid loss, such as from traumatic bodily injury, which makes the heart unable to pump enough blood to the body, or severe anemia where there is not enough blood to carry oxygen through the body.
  • Neurogenic shock is caused by spinal cord injury, usually as a result of a traumatic accident or injury.

How common is shock?

Please discuss with your doctor for further information.


What are the symptoms of shock?

The common symptoms of shock are:

  • rapid, weak, or absent pulse
  • irregular heartbeat
  • rapid, shallow breathing
  • lightheadedness
  • cool, clammy skin
  • dilated pupils
  • lackluster eyes
  • chest pain
  • nausea
  • confusion
  • anxiety
  • decrease in urine
  • thirst and dry mouth
  • low blood sugar
  • loss of consciousness

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

All forms of shock are life threatening. If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.


What causes shock?

Your body enters shock when you don’t have enough blood circulating through your system to keep your organs and tissues functioning properly.

There are several main causes of shock:

  • Heart conditions (heart attack, heart failure)
  • Heavy internal or external bleeding, such as from a serious injury or rupture of a blood vessel
  • Dehydration, especially when severe or related to heat illness.
  • Infection (septic shock)
  • Severe allergic reaction (anaphylactic shock)
  • Spinal injuries (neurogenic shock)
  • Burns
  • Persistent vomiting or diarrhea

Risk factors

What increases my risk for shock?

Risk factors for each type of shock are different.

Risks factors for septic shock:

Certain factors such as age or prior illness can put you at greater risk for developing septic shock. This condition is common in newborns, older adults, pregnant women, and those with suppressed immune systems caused by HIV, rheumatic diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, or psoriasis. And inflammatory bowel diseases or cancer treatments could cause it.

The following factors could also make it more likely that a person develops septic shock:

  • major surgery or long-term hospitalization
  • diabetes type 1 and type 2 injection drug use
  • hospitalized patients that are already very sick
  • exposure to devices like intravenous catheters, urinary catheters, or breathing tubes, which can introduce bacteria into the body
  • poor nutrition

Risks factors for septic shock:

There aren’t many known risk factors for anaphylaxis, but some things that might increase your risk include:

  • Previous anaphylaxis. If you’ve had anaphylaxis once, your risk of having this serious reaction increases. Future reactions might be more severe than the first reaction.
  • Allergies or asthma. People who have either condition are at increased risk of having anaphylaxis.
  • Certain other conditions. These include heart disease and an abnormal accumulation of a certain type of white blood cell (mastocytosis).

Risks factors for cardiogenic shock:

If you have a heart attack, your risk of developing cardiogenic shock increases if you:

  • Are older
  • Have a history of heart failure or heart attack
  • Have blockages (coronary artery disease) in several of your heart’s main arteries
  • Have diabetes or high blood pressure

Risks factors for hypovolemic shock:

Since this type of shock occurs from either illness or injury, it is difficult to determine risk factors. Anyone is potentially at risk for developing this condition, though it is relatively rare.

Dehydration may be a contributing factor in some cases of hypovolemic shock. Continuing to drink water is very important, especially during illnesses where vomiting or diarrhea may occur.

Risks factors for neurogenic shock:

Risks factors for neurogenic shock are also risks factor of spinal core injuries:

Although a spinal cord injury is usually the result of an accident and can happen to anyone, certain factors may predispose you to a higher risk of sustaining a spinal cord injury, including:

  • Being male. Spinal cord injuries affect a disproportionate amount of men. In fact, females account for only about 20 percent of traumatic spinal cord injuries in the United States.
  • Being between the ages of 16 and 30. You’re most likely to suffer a traumatic spinal cord injury if you’re between the ages of 16 and 30.
  • Being older than 65. Falls cause most injuries in older adults.
  • Engaging in risky behavior. Diving into too-shallow water or playing sports without wearing the proper safety gear or taking proper precautions can lead to spinal cord injuries. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries for people under 65.
  • Having a bone or joint disorder. A relatively minor injury can cause a spinal cord injury if you have another disorder that affects your bones or joints, such as arthritis or osteoporosis.

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is shock diagnosed?

First responders and doctors often recognize shock by its external symptoms. They may also check for:

  • low blood pressure
  • weak pulse
  • rapid heartbeat

Once they’ve diagnosed shock, their first priority is to provide lifesaving treatment to get blood circulating through your body as quickly as possible. This can be done by giving fluid, drugs, blood products, and supportive care.  It will not resolve unless you can find and treat the cause.

Once you’re stable, your doctor can try to diagnose the cause of shock. To do so, they may order one or more tests, such as imaging or blood tests.

Imaging tests

Your doctor may order imaging tests to check for injuries or damage to your internal tissues and organs, such as:

  • bone fractures
  • organ ruptures
  • muscle or tendon tears
  • abnormal growths

Such tests include:

  • ultrasound
  • X-ray
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan

Blood tests

Your doctor may use blood tests to look for signs of:

  • significant blood loss
  • infection in your blood
  • drug or medication overdose

How is shock treated?

Shock can lead to unconsciousness, breathing problems, and even cardiac arrest. If you suspect that you’re experiencing shock, get medical help immediately. If you suspect that someone else has gone into shock, call 911 and provide first-aid treatment until professional help arrives.

First aid treatment

If you suspect someone has gone into shock, call 911. Then follow these steps.

If they’re unconscious:

Check to see if they’re still breathing and have a heartbeat.

If you don’t detect breathing or a heartbeat, begin CPR.

If they’re breathing:

Lay them down on their back.

Elevate their feet at least 12 inches above the ground. This position, known as the shock position, helps direct blood to their vital organs where it’s most needed.

Cover them with a blanket or extra clothing to help keep them warm.

Check their breathing and heart rate regularly for changes.

If you suspect they’ve injured their head, neck, or back, avoid moving them.

Apply first aid to any visible wounds. If you suspect they’re experiencing an allergic reaction, ask them if they have an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen). People with severe allergies often carry this device.

It contains an easy-to-inject needle with a dose of hormone called epinephrine. You can use it to treat anaphylaxis.

If they begin to vomit, turn their head sideways. This helps prevent choking. If you suspect they’ve injured their neck or back, avoid turning their head. Instead, stabilize their neck and roll their entire body to the side to clear the vomit out.

Medical care

Your doctor’s treatment plan for shock will depend on the cause of your condition. Different types of shock are treated differently. For example, your doctor may use:

  • epinephrine and other drugs to treat anaphylactic shock
  • blood transfusion to replace lost blood and treat hypovolemic shock
  • medications, heart surgery, or other interventions to treat cardiogenic shock
  • antibiotics to treat septic shock

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage shock?

Some forms and cases of shock are preventable. Take steps to lead a safe and healthy lifestyle. For example:

  • If you’ve been diagnosed with severe allergies, avoid your triggers, carry an epinephrine auto-injector, and use it at the first sign of an anaphylactic reaction.
  • To lower your risk of blood loss from injuries, wear protective gear when taking part in contact sports, riding your bike, using dangerous equipment, and wear a seatbelt when traveling in motor vehicles.
  • To lower your chances of heart damage, eat a well-balanced diet, exercise regularly, and avoid smoking and second-hand smoke.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids. This is especially important when you’re spending time in very hot or humid environments.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.


Review Date: October 16, 2017 | Last Modified: October 16, 2017

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