Last updated: 03.08.17

How to Treat Shock and Its Symptoms

Please note that this information does not qualify you as an official first aider, and Virtual College advise calling 999 in the first instance at the scene of an emergency.

This material and any associated assessments do not constitute a qualification or accreditation as an official first aider. All content provided is for general information only.

Virtual College advocate dialling the emergency services before attempting any form of first aid.

Shock (also known as circulatory shock) is a severe, life-threatening condition in which blood is not properly flowing around the body, or is not being properly utilized by cells. In such a situation, cells and tissue cannot work as they should, and vital organs such as the heart and brain can become damaged or even fail. As a result, identifying and treating the symptoms of shock as soon as possible can significantly alter the outcome of the condition. This is an important part of first aid, and in this article, we’re going to look at what causes shock, how you can recognise it, and how you can treat it.

Note: Shock should not be confused with the more commonly used term referring to the mental state of shock, which can happen during or after an accident, but which is mental in its effects. The definition of shock in a medical situation is a physical condition.

What are the causes of shock?

There are several different types of shock, that relate to the variety of causes. The four main ones are the following:

  • Cardiogenic shock - Directly related to heart problems, and the heart’s inability to properly pump blood around the body, this is the most commonly encountered type of shock when a person has suffered heart failure.
  • Hypovolemic shock - This is caused when the volume of blood in a person’s body is too low, and is generally the result of severe bleeding, either from an external or internal sources. It can also be caused by massive fluid loss, which can occur as a result of serious cases of diarrhoea or vomiting.
  • Obstructive shock - Similar to cardiogenic shock, this type of shock happens when an obstruction outside the heart prevents blood from being pumped properly around the body.
  • Distributive shock - This covers the various types of shock that are the result of oxygen not being utilised by cells properly. Septic shock is the most common form, caused by the spread of infection. A well known term, anaphylactic shock, sets in when a person has a severe allergic reaction to an allergen, such as a wasp sting, and is another type of distributive shock.
  • Identifying Shock Symptoms

    In order to determine if someone is suffering from shock, you should observe the person for the following symptoms:

  • Pale, cold and/or clammy skin
  • Rapid and shallow breathing
  • Rapid and weak pulse
  • Confusion and/or light-headedness
  • Excessive yawning or sighing
  • Lack of response or unconsciousness
  • Not all signs of shock will be present in all patients, but the above are generally the most commonly encountered. If you are in any doubt, then call 999 straight away.

    How to Treat Shock

    It is very important to note that shock is generally not reversible in a first aid situation, and your job is to manage the symptoms of the condition until emergency medical help arrives. If possible, you should also treat any injuries or other conditions that may be the cause of the person going into shock. The primary survey, which you can read more about here, may be of use in a situation in which someone may be going into shock.

    Step 1: Have the person lie down if at all possible, as this will help to keep blood moving throughout the body.

    Step 2: Try to elevate the person’s feet or legs by about 30cm in order to divert blood flow towards more vital organs.

    Step 3: Call 999 and explain the situation to the operator. If possible, make it clear as to the reason that the person is suffering from shock.

    Step 4: Try to loosen any clothing, particularly around the person’s neck, chest and waist, in order to encourage blood flow.

    Step 5: Try to keep the victim as calm as possible, as increased stress can make the situation worse. Talk, comfort and reassure them. You should also keep them warm and as comfortable as you can - coats or blankets are useful here.

    Step 6: Keep checking the person’s breathing and pulse. You should also take note if their level of response changes. For more information about checking someone’s responsiveness, read our guide on the subject here.

    Step 7: If the person becomes unconscious, is vomiting, or struggles to breathe, then they should be placed into the recovery position. Read our guide on how to do this here.

    Step 8: Finally, you may need to perform CPR until emergency medical help arrives. Visit our page on the subject to find out when and how to perform CPR.

    For more information about the first aid related courses that we can deliver to you and your employees, click here to visit our Health & Safety Training section.

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