I can remember from when I was a youngster that if anything bad happened, a car crash, fall or a broken arm you always were offered some sugar water, with the statement “this will help with the shock”.  This idea that sugar water is an integral treatment for shock has been around for as long as I can remember. Even today this remains the primary “go-to” for many people.

We need to first understand shock before we are able to bust the myth. The medical definition of shock is “An acute circulatory failure with inadequate or inappropriately distributed tissue perfusion resulting in generalised cellular hypoxia”. This really means that shock is a lack of oxygen to the cells of the body and the bodies response to this lack of oxygen. There are many types and causes of shock, including but not limited to damage to the spinal cord/brain, loss of blood or body fluids, severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis), septic shock, psychogenic shock (psychological in origin), severe pain, heart attack, extreme temperatures to mention a few. One must realise that uncontrolled shock will inevatibly be fatal.

There are some general signs and symptoms that identify if someone is suffering from shock these may include:

  • Pale/grey, cold, clammy (damp), skin
  • Weakened pulse
  • Shallow breathing or gasping
  • Confusion, anxiety, very sleepy, unconscious
  • Nausea/vomiting

Now that we understand shock a little better we can finish busting the myth. Let us look at what we can and can’t expect from sugar water.

Sugar water will not address the most important aspects necessary during shock. Sugar water does not:

  • Increase the amount of oxygen in your blood.
  • Transport oxygen around the body
  • Replace lost blood quickly enough to have a positive impact on the time frame available.
  • Warm your body on its own.
  • Positively impact your blood pressure
  • Stop a heart attack or change your heart rate
  • Repair a damaged brain or spinal cord
  • Stop nausea or vomiting

What sugar water could do however, is the following:

  • Stimulate vomiting or exacerbate nausea
  • If there is a brain injury, any additional vomiting could increase the pressure in the head further damaging the brain
  • Further raise the blood glucose level of somebody in a Hyperglycaemic crisis, making the situation worse.
  • Delay emergency surgery
  • Cause the person to aspirate (choke) on the sugar water

There is one specific situation where sugar water may be of benefit in the case of shock. This is in the case of a person who is diabetic and is having a hypoglycemic crisis (severe acute low blood glucose level). In this case, providing the person is conscious some sugar water may be of benefit if no other pure glucose alternatives are immediately available. It must be pointed out that under certain circumstances diabetics can suffer from a blood glucose level that is dangerously high (hyperglycaemic crisis), in this case, sugar water will do far more harm than good. Unless you are properly trained it can be very difficult to tell the difference.

If one evaluates the information above it quickly becomes apparent that sugar water offers no benefits but it certainly does come with potential risks. Sugar water has no positive influence on someone suffering shock but it certainly has the potential to create problems.

You can still help someone in shock in ways other than giving them sugar water. Consider the following steps:

  • If appropriate call emergency medical services
  • Make sure they have an open airway (they cannot breathe without it)
  • Stop any massive bleeding
  • Try to keep them warm with blankets, jackets or similar
  • Calm them
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