What causes shock? 22 possible conditions

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What Is Shock?

Shock is a state of physical shutdown. Your body enters shock when there is not enough circulating blood. Shock can cause multiple organ failure. It can lead to life-threatening complications, such as heart failure.

There are many types of shock. Major types of shock include:

  • cardiogenic
  • anaphylactic
  • septic
  • hypovolemic

All forms of shock are life-threatening. Any symptoms of shock should be reported to a medical professional immediately.

What Are the Signs That Someone Is in Shock?

Recognizing the symptoms of shock can save your life. These symptoms signal that your body is shutting down. They are a sign that you need to get help immediately.

Call 911 for help if you have any of the symptoms of shock. You may experience one or many of the following:

  • decrease in blood pressure
  • rapid, weak, or absent pulse
  • irregular heart rate
  • confusion
  • cool, clammy skin
  • rapid and shallow breathing
  • anxiety
  • lightheadedness
  • decrease in urine
  • chest pain
  • nausea
  • thirst and dry mouth
  • low blood sugar
  • dilated pupils or lackluster eyes
  • fever (septic shock only)
  • hives and swelling of the face and throat (anaphylactic shock only)

What Causes Shock to Occur?

Anything that affects the flow of blood through the body can cause shock. Some common causes of shock are:

  • significant blood loss
  • dehydration
  • allergic reaction
  • reduced blood pressure
  • heart failure
  • nerve damage
  • blood infections

Types of Shock

There are four major types of shock. However, each type of shock can be caused by a number of different events.

Anaphylactic Shock

Anaphylactic shock is a complication of a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis). Allergic reactions occur when your body mistakenly sees a harmless substance as harmful. This causes it to send out antibodies to attack. The symptoms of an allergic reaction are actually caused by your body’s response, not by the allergen itself.

Anaphylaxis is usually caused by food allergies or insect bites. A mild reaction may just cause symptoms such as hives or a rash. A major reaction can lead to:

  • difficulty breathing (due to swelling in the airways)
  • low blood pressure
  • blocked airways
  • rapid pulse
  • shock

People with severe allergies often carry a device called an EpiPen/Twinject. This is a device that can automatically inject a hormone called epinephrine. It is used to stop an allergic reaction and prevent anaphylactic shock.

Cardiogenic Shock

Damage to the heart can decrease the blood flow to the body. This can lead to cardiogenic shock.

Common causes of cardiogenic shock are:

  • heart muscle damage
  • irregular heart rhythm
  • tears in the heart
  • very slow heart rhythm

Hypovolemic Shock

This form of shock is brought on by severe blood loss. After blood loss, there is not enough blood to supply the vital organs. This leads to shock.

Septic Shock

Sometimes infections cause bacteria to enter the bloodstream. This can lead to a condition called sepsis (blood poisoning). Septic shock occurs when bacteria and their toxins damage tissues or organs in the body.

Dealing with Shock

Shock can lead to unconsciousness. It can also cause both respiratory and cardiac arrest. If a person goes into shock and becomes unconscious, call 911. Then follow these steps:

  • Check to see if the person is still breathing and if he or she has a heartbeat.
  • If you don’t detect a heartbeat or breathing, begin rescue breathing and emergency CPR.

If the person is breathing:

  • Check his or her breathing every five minutes.
  • Lay him or her on his or her back.
  • Elevate his or her feet at least 12 inches above the ground. This position is referred to as the shock position. It helps keep blood in the vital organs, where it is most needed.

If you suspect movement may harm the person, leave him or her lying flat. You should not move someone who has injuries to the:

  • head
  • neck
  • back
  • spine
  • legs

Apply first aid to any visible wounds.

If the person begins to vomit, turn his or her head sideways. This helps to prevent choking.

However, if the person has an injury to the spine, do not turn his or her head. Instead, stabilize the neck, then roll his or her entire body to the side.

Diagnosing Shock

The symptoms of shock are often enough to diagnose the condition. Doctors will also look for:

  • low blood pressure
  • weak pulse
  • rapid heartbeat

The first priority is lifesaving treatment. The goal is to get blood circulating through the body again as quickly as possible. Once the person is stable, doctors will then try to diagnose whatever caused the shock. This is often done using imaging and blood tests.

Imaging Tests

Imaging tests may be used to check for injuries such as:

  • fracture
  • organ rupture
  • muscle or tendon tears
  • abnormal growths

Such tests include:

  • ultrasound
  • X-ray
  • CT scan (computed tomography scan)
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)

Blood Tests

Blood tests can look for:

  • an infection in the blood (sepsis)
  • significant blood loss
  • signs of drug or medication overdose

Treatment for Shock

Treatment for shock depends on why the shock occurred. The different types of shock are all treated differently. For example:

  • Hypovolemic shock is usually treated by blood transfusion. You will receive donor blood to replace the blood you lost. It is pumped into your vein through an intravenous (IV) line.
  • Shock caused by dehydration is treated with IV fluids.
  • Shock caused by anaphylaxis is treated with epinephrine and other drugs.
  • Cardiogenic shock is treated by improving blood flow through your heart.

Can Someone Recover Fully From Shock?

A full recovery from shock is possible. However, recovery depends greatly on the length of time the person was in shock. Other factors that determine recovery are:

  • what organs were affected
  • extent of organ damage
  • extent of nursing care
  • age
  • cause of shock

Shock has a high risk of death. It is critical to call 911 immediately if you find someone experiencing symptoms of shock.

Preventing Shock

Some forms of shock are preventable. Take the following steps to reduce your risk of developing shock:

  • Stay hydrated. This is especially important when it is very hot or humid. Make sure you drink the recommended eight to 10 glasses of water per day. If you’re active, increase your fluid intake.
  • Wear proper footwear to prevent falls.
  • To prevent injury, wear protective gear when taking part in contact sports or using dangerous equipment.
  • Carry an epinephrine injector if you have severe allergies. This can stop an allergic reaction before it becomes anaphylactic shock.

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.



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Heart Attack Overview

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Spinal Cord Injury

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This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Burns are characterized by severe skin damage in which many of the affected cells die. Most people can recover from burns without serious health consequences.

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Epidural Hematoma

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

An epidural hematoma occurs when blood fills the area between the skull and the protective covering of the brain. It usually results from a traumatic injury to the head, and puts you at risk for brain damage or death.

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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when we inhale too much carbon monoxide. It can lead to tissue damage and possibly death. Signs include a dull headache, nausea, confusion, and blue lips or skin.

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Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

The aorta carries blood from your heart down to your abdomen, legs, and pelvis. Swollen or bulging aortic walls in the abdomen is known as an abdominal aortic aneurysm, which causes pain.

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Heart Failure

Heart failure is characterized by the heart's inability to pump an adequate supply of blood. Without sufficient blood flow, all major body functions are disrupted. Heart failure is a collection of symptoms and problem...

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Meningococcemia is a bacterial infection caused by the Neisseria meningitides bacteria. This is the same type of bacteria that causes some types of meningitis. When the bacteria infect the membranes (meninges) tha...

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Toxic Shock Syndrome

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Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a severe lung condition. It occurs when fluid fills up the air sacs in your lungs. Too much fluid in your lungs lowers the amount of oxygen in your bloodstream. With ARDS...

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Thyroid Storm

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

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Hereditary Angioedema

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Chlorine Poisoning

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Chlorine is a chemical that is used to prevent bacteria from growing in water, as well as for sanitation for sewage and industrial waste. It is also an ingredient in several household cleaning products.Chlorin...

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Caffeine Overdose

Caffeine overdose may occur when you ingest more than the recommended amount of caffeine, which is usually 200 to 300 mg per day. However, a safe amount of caffeine is different for everyone, as it depends on weight...

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.
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