Distributive Shock Clinical Presentation

Updated: Jan 05, 2018
  • Author: Klaus-Dieter Lessnau, MD, FCCP; Chief Editor: Michael R Pinsky, MD, CM, Dr(HC), FCCP, FAPS, MCCM  more...
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Patients with shock frequently present with tachycardia, tachypnea, hypotension, altered mental status changes, and oliguria.

Patients with septic shock or systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS) may have prior symptoms that suggest infection or inflammation of the respiratory tract, urinary tract, or abdominal cavity.

Septic shock occurs frequently in hospitalized patients with risk factors such as indwelling catheters or venous access devices, recent surgery, or immunosuppressive therapy.

Patients with anaphylaxis commonly have recent iatrogenic (drug) or accidental (bee sting) exposure to an allergen and coexisting respiratory symptoms, such as wheezing and dyspnea, pruritus, or urticaria.

Staphylococcal toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is still observed most commonly in women who are menstruating, but it is also associated with recent soft-tissue injury, cutaneous infections, postpartum and cesarean delivery, wound infections, pharyngitis, and focal staphylococcal infections, such as abscess, empyema, pneumonia, and osteomyelitis. Patients often have a history of influenzalike illness (fever, arthralgias, myalgias) and a desquamating rash.

Pancreatitis may be another cause of distributive shock; expect symptoms of abdominal pain that radiate to the back, as well as nausea and vomiting. Burns also have been described as a cause of distributive shock.

Adrenal insufficiency

Adrenal insufficiency as a cause of shock should be considered in any patient with hypotension who lacks signs of infection, cardiovascular disease, or hypovolemia.

Long-term treatment with corticosteroids may result in inadequate response of the adrenal axis to stress, such as infection, surgery, or trauma, and subsequent onset or worsening of shock.

If the clinical picture is consistent with adrenal insufficiency in a person without this diagnosis, consider that this could be the first presentation of this disorder.

There is a high incidence of adrenal insufficiency in critically ill patients infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), although this incidence varies with the criteria used to diagnose adrenal insufficiency. [14]


Physical Examination

Cardinal features of distributive shock include the following:

  • Change in mental status

  • Heart rate - Greater than 90 beats per minute (note that heart rate elevation is not evident if the patient is on a beta blocker)

  • Hypotension - Systolic blood pressure less than 90 mm Hg or a reduction of 40 mm Hg from baseline

  • Respiratory rate - Greater than 20 breaths per minute

  • Extremities - Frequently warm, with bounding pulses and increased pulse pressure (systolic minus diastolic blood pressure) in early shock; late shock may present as critical organ dysfunction

  • Hyperthermia - Core body temperature greater than 38.3°C (101°F)

  • Hypothermia - Core body temperate less than 36°C (96.8°F)

  • Pulse oximetry - Relative hypoxemia

  • Decreased urine output

Clinical symptoms of the underlying infections found in distributive shock include the following:

  • Pneumonia - Dullness to percussion, rhonchi, crackles, bronchial breath sounds

  • Urinary tract infection - Costovertebral angle tenderness, suprapubic tenderness, dysuria and polyuria

  • Intra-abdominal infection or acute abdomen - Focal or diffuse tenderness to palpation, diminished or absent bowel sounds, rebound tenderness

  • Gangrene or soft-tissue infection - Pain out of proportion to lesion, skin discoloration and ulceration, desquamating rash, areas of subcutaneous necrosis

Anaphylaxis is characterized by the following clinical symptoms:

  • Respiratory distress

  • Wheezing

  • Urticarial rash

  • Angioedema

TSS is characterized by the following clinical symptoms:

  • High fever

  • Diffuse rash with desquamation on the palms and soles over a subsequent 1-2 weeks

  • Hypotension (may be orthostatic) and evidence of involvement of 3 other organ systems

Streptococcal TSS more frequently presents with focal soft-tissue inflammation and is less commonly associated with diffuse rash. Occasionally, it can progress explosively within hours.

Adrenal insufficiency is characterized by the following clinical symptoms:

  • Hyperpigmentation of skin, oral, vaginal, and anal mucosal membranes may be present in chronic adrenal insufficiency.

  • In acute or acute-on-chronic adrenal insufficiency brought on by physiologic stress, hypotension may be the only physical sign.