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Shock (not to be confused with emotional shock) is a life-threatening condition which happens when the body isn't getting enough flow of blood. This means that the cells don't get enough oxygen to enable them to work properly, which can lead to damage of the vital organs like the brain and the heart.

This leaflet is created from first aid advice provided by St John Ambulance, the nation's leading first aid charity. This advice is no substitute for first aid training - find a training course near you.

Shock can be caused by anything that reduces the flow of blood, including:

  • Heart problems, such as a heart attack, or heart failure.
  • Severe internal or external bleeding.
  • Loss of body fluids, from dehydration, diarrhoea, vomiting or burns.
  • Severe allergic reactions and severe infection.

If someone has any of the conditions above, which can reduce the circulation or blood flow, they could develop shock, so you may need to treat them for this condition as well.

If you think somebody could be suffering from shock, there are seven key things to look for:

  1. Paleness of the face (pallor).
  2. Cold, clammy skin.
  3. Fast, shallow breathing.
  4. Fast, weak pulse.
  5. Yawning or sighing.
  6. Confusion.
  7. Loss of response (in extreme cases).

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If they are showing signs of shock:

  • Lay them down with their head low and legs raised and supported, to increase the flow of blood to their head. Do not raise an injured leg.
  • Call 999 or 112 for medical help and say you think they are in shock, and explain what you think caused it (such as bleeding or a heart attack).
  • Loosen any tight clothing around the neck, chest and waist to make sure it doesn't constrict their blood flow.
  • Fear and pain can make shock worse, by increasing the body's demand for oxygen, so while you wait for help to arrive, it's important to keep them comfortable, warm and calm. Do this by covering them with a coat or blanket and comforting and reassuring them.
  • Keep checking their breathing, pulse and level of response.
  • If they become unresponsive at any point, open their airway, check their breathing, and prepare to treat someone who has become unresponsive.

Note: these hints are no substitute for thorough knowledge of first aid. St John Ambulance holds first aid courses throughout the country.

Adapted from the St John Ambulance leaflet: shock. Copyright for this leaflet is with St John Ambulance.