Clinical Death and Biological Death: They're Not Quite the Same

Don't be fooled. Death doesn't always mean really dead. Clinical death is a somewhat misleading term, and one we need to understand if we ever find ourselves helping someone who is unconscious.

Clinical death is simply when a person has stopped breathing. This results in oxygen not entering the body and the organs, especially the brain, which affects brain function. If this condition is not quickly corrected, then biological death will occur which is when the brain has been deprived of blood and oxygen long enough and the cells begin to die. Even then the brain cells don't all die immediately and there is a window of opportunity that shouldn't be wasted. Until this point is reached a patient is said to be only clinically dead. Depending on what has happened to them, how quickly first aid is administered, and how soon advanced medical help arrives, there is a chance they may be saved.

There are many causes of clinical death such as suffocation, asphyxiation, drowning, injuries, poisoning, and anaphylaxis.

Responding to clinical death early enough and performing proper rescue techniques renders the best chance of preventing biological death from taking place.

First Aid

As potential rescuers we must never assume someone is biologically dead. Why? Because it isn't possible to know without proper testing, which is done by a medical doctor. Even paramedics are not permitted to pronounce someone dead, they must continue their rescue efforts until the patient is taken to the hospital and the ER physician takes over.

Having said that, there are some obvious exceptions; if a body has begun decomposing, or if there is decapitation, then it is more than obvious that that person is both clinically and biologically dead.

Rescue efforts should include;

  • Controlling of severe bleeding as best as possible.
  • Performing CPR.
  • Administering AED.
  • Keeping the person warm and treating for shock.

Brain Damage Timeline

Once someone has stopped breathing they have about 4-6 minutes until some brain damage begins to occur. At around 6-10 minutes some brain damage is likely. And, generally speaking, after 10 minutes, irreversible brain damage is almost certain. However, as mentioned earlier, there's no way to know with certainty so don't assume and stop rescue efforts.

Under special circumstances, such as severe hypothermia, biological death may be delayed. This is more likely with children.

Again, never assume someone is beyond help. Never stop your rescue attempts until paramedics arrive and they tell you to stop. Pronouncing someone dead should only be done by a medical doctor or coroner.

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