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What Is Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation?

Disseminated intravascular coagulation (ko-ag-u-LA-shun), or DIC, is a condition in which blood clots form throughout the body's small blood vessels. These blood clots can reduce or block blood flow through the blood vessels, which can damage the body's organs.

In DIC, the increased clotting uses up platelets (PLATE-lets) and clotting factors in the blood. Platelets are blood cell fragments that stick together to seal small cuts and breaks on blood vessel walls and stop bleeding. Clotting factors are proteins needed for normal blood clotting.

With fewer platelets and clotting factors in the blood, serious bleeding can occur. DIC can cause internal and external bleeding.

Internal bleeding occurs inside the body. External bleeding occurs underneath or from the skin or mucosa. (The mucosa is the tissue that lines some organs and body cavities, such as your nose and mouth.)

DIC can cause life-threatening bleeding.

Overview

To understand DIC, it helps to understand the body's normal blood clotting process. Your body has a system to control bleeding. When small cuts or breaks occur on blood vessel walls, your body activates clotting factors. These clotting factors, such as thrombin and fibrin, work with platelets to form blood clots.

Blood clots seal the small cuts or breaks on the blood vessel walls. After bleeding stops and the vessels heal, your body breaks down and removes the clots.

Some diseases and conditions can cause clotting factors to become overactive, leading to DIC. These diseases and conditions include:

  • Sepsis (an infection in the bloodstream)
  • Surgery and trauma
  • Cancer
  • Serious complications of pregnancy and childbirth

Examples of less common causes of DIC are bites from poisonous snakes (such as rattlesnakes and other vipers), frostbite, and burns.

The two types of DIC are acute and chronic. Acute DIC develops quickly (over hours or days) and must be treated right away. The condition begins with excessive blood clotting in the small blood vessels and quickly leads to serious bleeding.

Chronic DIC develops slowly (over weeks or months). It lasts longer and usually isn't recognized as quickly as acute DIC. Chronic DIC causes excessive blood clotting, but it usually doesn't lead to bleeding. Cancer is the most common cause of chronic DIC.

Treatment for DIC involves treating the clotting and bleeding problems and the underlying cause of the condition.

People who have acute DIC may need blood transfusions, medicines, and other life-saving measures. People who have chronic DIC may need medicines to help prevent blood clots from forming in their small blood vessels.

Outlook

The outlook for DIC depends on its severity and underlying cause. Acute DIC can damage the body's organs and even cause death if it's not treated right away. Chronic DIC also can damage the body's organs.

Researchers are looking for ways to prevent DIC or diagnose it early. They're also studying the use of various clotting proteins and medicines to treat the condition.

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November 02, 2011 Last Updated Icon

The NHLBI updates Health Topics articles on a biennial cycle based on a thorough review of research findings and new literature. The articles also are updated as needed if important new research is published. The date on each Health Topics article reflects when the content was originally posted or last revised.