Medically reviewed by Nicholas R. Metrus, MD
Hemorrhage is the medical term for any type of bleeding. A hemorrhage can be internal, such as in the stomach, or external, like a cut on the skin. Injuries, certain medical conditions, and medications can cause hemorrhages that range from minor to life-threatening. Symptoms vary and will depend on where the bleeding is occurring and the amount of blood loss you've experienced.
Your exact treatment plan will depend on the severity of your symptoms and the location of the hemorrhage. First aid measures are often enough to treat minor bleeding. But more severe bleeding requires medical attention and treatment, such as blood transfusions or surgery.
It's common to experience a hemorrhage at some point in your lifetime—as bleeding is common and can affect people of all ages. However, those with bleeding disorders, such as hemophilia or von Willebrand disease, have a higher risk of excessive bleeding and serious complications.
Types of Hemorrhage
Three types of blood vessels carry blood throughout your body: arteries, veins, and capillaries. Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the body's tissues and organs. Veins return deoxygenated blood from the rest of the body back to the heart. Capillaries are tiny blood vessels that connect arteries and veins, helping oxygen and nutrients reach the body's tissues and organs.
Hemorrhages can occur anywhere in the body and commonly affect all three blood vessel types:
Arterial hemorrhage: When bleeding occurs due to a damaged artery, the blood is bright red and comes out in spurts, matching the heart's rhythm. Arterial bleeding can be life-threatening due to rapid blood loss.
Venous hemorrhage: When a vein is damaged, dark red blood flows steadily from the affected blood vessel. Venous bleeding is less severe than arterial bleeding but can still be significant and requires prompt treatment.
Capillary hemorrhage: Capillary hemorrhage occurs when capillaries—the smallest blood vessels—are damaged. Capillary bleeding is generally slow and oozes or trickles. Though it can be the most painful, it is the least severe type of bleeding and often stops on its own.
Hemorrhage can happen in almost any body part, internally and externally. Your symptoms will vary on the severity of the bleeding and the location of the hemorrhage.
External Hemorrhage Symptoms
External bleeding is visible, making it easier to pinpoint the cause and source of the bleeding. With external bleeding, blood comes through an opening in the skin, usually due to a cut or puncture wound. Symptoms can include:
Internal Hemorrhage Symptoms
With internal bleeding, blood may pool inside the body or exit through the mouth (via vomit), nose, anus (with or without stool), vagina, or urethra (in urine). Symptoms vary depending on where the bleeding is occurring, but may involve:
Skin color changes (pale or bruised skin)
Tingling in the hands and feet
Nausea or vomiting
Lightheadedness or dizziness
Hypovolemic Shock Symptoms
Hypovolemic shock occurs when the body loses too much blood. Both external and internal hemorrhages can cause shock when you lose one-fifth (20%) or more of your body's total blood volume. Excessive blood loss is potentially life-threatening because it reduces blood flow and oxygen delivery to vital organs and tissues.
Signs and symptoms of hypovolemic shock can include:
Anxiety or agitation
Cool, clammy, pale, or bluish-colored skin
Rapid heart rate
Loss of consciousness
Hemorrhages happen when there is damage, injury, or illness to one of your blood vessels. As a result, blood loss can occur. There are many possible causes of bleeding, such as:
Trauma: Injuries from accidents, falls, or penetrating wounds can damage blood vessels and cause scrapes, cuts, or puncture wounds that bleed from the skin. Injury to an internal organ or blood vessel, such as a crushing injury or gunshot wound, can lead to internal bleeding.
Medical conditions: Some health conditions can cause bleeding or increase the risk of hemorrhage. These include liver disease, cancer, diabetes, vitamin K deficiency, alcohol use disorder, peptic ulcer disease, high blood pressure, and bleeding disorders such as hemophilia and von Willebrand disease.
Medications: Aspirin and blood thinners (like antiplatelet and anticoagulant medicines), such as heparin and warfarin, can increase the risk of excess bleeding.
Anyone can experience hemorrhages, but certain factors can increase the risk of significant blood loss. These include:
Health conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, or bleeding disorders
Family history of hemorrhages
Tobacco and alcohol use
Minor external hemorrhages, such as a skin scrape or cut, do not always require a diagnosis. Seek medical attention for external hemorrhaging when:
Bleeding does not stop or is the result of a serious injury
The wound appears to need stitches
There are signs of internal bleeding or shock
Your bleeding is due to an animal bite
The wound contains dirt or debris that is difficult to remove
To diagnose an internal hemorrhage, healthcare providers work to identify the type, location, and severity of the bleeding. Your healthcare provider will begin by carefully reviewing your medical history, such as by asking whether you have had recent injuries or surgeries, any medical conditions you have that increase the risk of bleeding, and your symptoms.
During the physical examination, your healthcare provider will check your vital signs, including your heart rate, breathing rate, and body temperature. They will also carefully examine your body for signs of internal bleeding, such as bruising, swelling, pain, and tenderness.
Diagnostic tests can help determine the source and severity of bleeding. These tests may include:
Blood tests: Check for anemia, blood clotting problems, infection, and overall blood counts
Imaging tests: Computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and ultrasound scans provide detailed images of internal organs and tissues to help identify the location and severity of bleeding
Angiography: Uses a dye and X-rays to visualize how blood flows through blood vessels and help identify the source of bleeding
Endoscopy: If your healthcare provider suspects internal bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract, they may perform an endoscopy, which involves inserting a long, flexible tube down your throat to visualize the digestive tract and look for the source of bleeding
The primary goal of treating hemorrhage is stopping the bleeding, addressing underlying causes, and preventing complications. Your exact treatment plan will depend on how severe your bleeding is and whether the hemorrhage is external or internal. In most cases, first aid and in-hospital medical treatments can improve symptoms and stop blood loss.
First aid for minor external hemorrhages includes:
Cleaning the affected area with mild soap and water and a sterile cloth
Applying pressure to the wound
Bandaging the wound to stop the bleeding
Severe external bleeding requires immediate medical attention. If someone you know is bleeding heavily, call 911 and:
Cover the wound with a clean cloth
Use a tourniquet (a band that you tie 2 to 3 inches above the bleeding site) if the wound is on an arm or leg
Pack the wound with gauze or a clean cloth if a tourniquet is unavailable
Apply direct pressure to the wound until emergency medical technicians arrive
Internal bleeding and severe external hemorrhaging require prompt emergency medical care. Healthcare providers will assess the source and severity of bleeding to determine the most appropriate treatment, which may involve:
Stitches (sutures) or staples: Close an open wound to stop bleeding and prevent bacteria and other harmful pathogens from entering the body
Surgery: Surgical procedures may be necessary to stop bleeding from major blood vessels or to repair damaged organs or body tissues
Blood transfusion: Donated blood is provided through an intravenous (IV) line to replace any blood you've lost and improve oxygen delivery throughout the body
Medications: Medicines help stop and stabilize blood pressure, which may include tranexamic acid (controls bleeding), vitamin K (promotes blood clotting), and desmopressin (increases blood clotting)
How to Prevent Hemorrhage
It is not always possible to prevent hemorrhaging, especially in the case of an accident or when you have an undiagnosed bleeding disorder. Preventative measures may help lower your risk of bleeding, such as:
Prioritize safety: Practice caution and follow safety protocols while engaging in activities with a higher risk of injury, such as sports or work involving heavy machinery. Keep sharp objects (e.g., knives) away from small children and wear a seatbelt when traveling in a vehicle.
Manage health conditions: Take your medications as prescribed if you have a bleeding disorder or a health condition associated with an increased risk of bleeding.
Get regular medical check-ups: Routine medical checkups can help identify and manage underlying conditions or genetic factors that may increase your risk of bleeding.
Seeking prompt treatment can help prevent complications of uncontrolled bleeding. Possible hemorrhage-related complications include:
Hypovolemic shock: A medical emergency that occurs when your body loses a significant amount of blood quickly, causing a potentially life-threatening drop in blood pressure, decreased oxygen throughout the body, and possible organ failure
Organ failure: Damage to vital organs, such as the brain, lungs, and liver, can occur when organs do not get sufficient blood and oxygen
Anemia: Severe or prolonged bleeding can lead to anemia, which causes fatigue, weakness, and shortness of breath
Death: Excessive blood loss can be fatal if not treated promptly
A Quick Review
A hemorrhage is any type of bleeding from a damaged blood vessel. Bleeding can be minor, such as from a paper cut or scrape on the knee, or major, or severe, such as from an internal organ due to an injury or illness. Traumatic injuries, medical conditions (e.g., blood disorders), and certain medications can also cause or increase the risk of hemorrhage.
Depending on the type and severity of your hemorrhage, symptoms may include pain, pale skin, shortness of breath, dizziness, weakness, and rapid pulse. Treatment will also depend on the location of the bleeding and your symptoms. First-aid measures, such as applying pressure to the wound and covering it with gauze or a bandage, are often enough for minor bleeding. Major bleeding requires prompt medical treatment, which may include surgery, medications, or transfusions.
An internal hemorrhage or severe external hemorrhage can be life-threatening if left untreated. If you or someone you know is experiencing internal or external hemorrhage symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is a hemorrhage life-threatening?
A hemorrhage can be life-threatening, especially when it involves significant blood loss or occurs in critical areas such as the brain or major blood vessels. Untreated, severe bleeding can lead to shock, organ failure, or death.
How long can you live with a hemorrhage?
The amount of time you can live with a hemorrhage depends on the severity of the bleeding and the location of the hemorrhage. If the bleeding is severe, people may have only minutes to receive life-saving medical treatment, while other types of bleeding may allow more time for medical intervention.
What is the most fatal hemorrhage?
Intracranial (brain) hemorrhages, or bleeding within the skull, are considered the most fatal. Up to 50% of people who experience a brain hemorrhage die within the first few days after diagnosis. However, heavy bleeding from any type of hemorrhage can be fatal if a person loses 40% or more of their blood volume.
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