Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation (DIC)

Table of Contents

What is disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC)?

Disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) also known as disseminated intravascular coagulopathy or DIC syndrome is a complex and often life-threatening disorder in which widespread blood clotting occurs throughout the body. This excessive clotting can lead to the consumption of clotting factors and platelets, resulting in a bleeding diathesis. The hallmark of DIC is the activation of both the coagulation and fibrinolysis. This activation leads to the formation of microthrombi (small blood clots) in the microvasculature. The microthrombi can obstruct blood flow and damage small blood vessels causing microangiopathy. The consumption of clotting factors and platelets can lead to bleeding, which can manifest as bruises, petechiae (small red spots on the skin), or even major hemorrhage.

Causes of disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) syndrome

DIC can be triggered by a variety of underlying conditions. Some of the most common causes of DIC syndrome include:

  • Sepsis: Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that occurs when the body’s immune system overreacts to an infection. Sepsis is a major cause of DIC, as the inflammatory response can trigger the activation of both the coagulation and fibrinolytic systems.
  • Trauma: Trauma can cause DIC by releasing tissue factors that activate the coagulation cascade. DIC is a common complication of major trauma, such as car accidents, falls, and gunshot wounds.
  • Cancer: Cancer can cause DIC by releasing substances that activate the coagulation cascade. Certain types of cancer, such as leukemia, are more likely to be associated with DIC.
  • Obstetric complications: Obstetric complications, such as abruptio placentae (premature separation of the placenta from the uterus) and amniotic fluid embolism (a rare but serious condition in which amniotic fluid enters the bloodstream), can cause DIC.
  • Medications: DIC can also be caused by a number of medications including Asparaginase, L-asparaginase, Alteplase, Steptokinase, Urokinase
  • A number of other medical conditions can cause DIC, including:

In some cases, the cause of DIC is unknown. This is known as idiopathic DIC.

Fibrinolysis in disseminated intravascular coagulopathy (DIC)

Fibrinolysis is the process by which blood clots are broken down. In DIC, fibrinolysis is activated in an attempt to remove the microthrombi that are forming throughout the body. However, the excessive activation of fibrinolysis can lead to the degradation of fibrinogen and other clotting factors, which can further exacerbate the bleeding diathesis.

Microangiopathy in DIC

Microangiopathy is the damage to small blood vessels. In DIC, microangiopathy is caused by the formation of microthrombi in the microvasculature. The microthrombi can obstruct blood flow and damage the vessel walls. This can lead to a number of complications, such as organ dysfunction, bleeding, and death.

Pathophysiology of disseminated intravascular coagulation

The pathophysiology of DIC is complex and not fully understood. However, it is believed that DIC is caused by the activation of both the coagulation and fibrinolytic systems. This activation can be triggered by a variety of underlying conditions, such as sepsis, trauma, cancer, and obstetric complications.

The activation of the coagulation system leads to the formation of thrombin. Thrombin is an enzyme that converts fibrinogen into fibrin. Fibrin is a protein that forms the structural basis of blood clots. The formation of fibrin can lead to the development of microthrombi throughout the body.

The activation of the fibrinolytic system leads to the breakdown of fibrin. This can help to prevent the growth of microthrombi. However, the excessive activation of fibrinolysis can lead to the degradation of fibrinogen and other clotting factors, which can further exacerbate the bleeding diathesis.

Key events in the pathophysiology of DIC

  1. Initiation: The coagulation cascade is activated by a variety of triggers, such as tissue factor, thrombin, and activated protein C.
  2. Propagation: The activated coagulation factors generate thrombin. Thrombin converts fibrinogen into fibrin.
  3. Clot formation: Fibrin forms a mesh that traps red blood cells, platelets, and other blood cells. This forms a blood clot.
  4. Fibrinolysis: The fibrinolytic system is activated. Plasmin is generated from plasminogen. Plasmin breaks down fibrin.
  5. Consumption: Clotting factors and platelets are consumed in the process of clot formation. This can lead to a deficiency of clotting factors and platelets.
  6. Bleeding: The deficiency of clotting factors and platelets can lead to bleeding.

Inflammatory Activation in DIC

Inflammatory activation is a core feature of DIC and plays a crucial role in its development and progression. DIC often arises due to underlying inflammatory conditions like severe infections (sepsis), trauma, cancer, or autoimmune diseases. These conditions trigger the release of various inflammatory mediators, including cytokines, chemokines, and adhesion molecules. These mediators, in turn, activate the coagulation system, leading to the characteristic blood clotting abnormalities in DIC.

Mechanisms of Inflammatory Activation in DIC

  • Direct activation of coagulation pathways: Cytokines like TNF-α and IL-1β directly activate various components of the coagulation cascade, promoting clot formation.
  • Endothelial dysfunction: Inflammatory mediators damage the endothelium, the lining of blood vessels, making them prone to clot formation and leakage (bleeding).
  • Activation of immune cells: Inflammatory stimuli trigger immune cells to release additional procoagulant factors, further amplifying the clotting response.

Consequences of Inflammatory Activation in DIC

  • Microvascular thrombosis: Small clots form in various organs, leading to tissue damage and organ dysfunction.
  • Bleeding: Depletion of clotting factors due to excessive consumption and endothelial damage leads to uncontrolled bleeding.
  • Organ failure: Prolonged inflammation and vascular damage can lead to the failure of vital organs like the lungs, kidneys, and liver.

What is pre-DIC?

Pre-DIC, or pre-disseminated intravascular coagulation, is a precursor state to the more severe condition known as DIC (disseminated intravascular coagulation). It’s essentially a warning sign that the body’s blood clotting system is becoming imbalanced, potentially leading to the development of full-blown DIC if not addressed.

Here’s what you need to know about pre-DIC:

  • Definition: It’s a state where the body’s blood clotting system starts to activate abnormally, but not yet to the extent of full-blown DIC.
  • Symptoms: Often subtle and non-specific, including unexplained fatigue, mild bleeding (e.g., nosebleeds), or changes in blood pressure.
  • Diagnosis: No definitive test, but deranged hemostatic markers like decreased platelet count, increased international normalized ratio (INR), decreased protein C and antithrombin, can provide clues.
  • Importance: Early identification and intervention are crucial, as timely treatment can prevent progression to DIC and its potentially life-threatening complications.
  • Treatment: Depends on the underlying cause, but may involve supportive measures like managing the trigger, regulating blood pressure, and potentially using low-dose anticoagulants.

Think of pre-DIC as a yellow flag: It’s not an emergency, but it demands attention and proactive steps to avoid a potential red flag (DIC).

Additional points to consider:

  • Pre-DIC is often associated with underlying conditions like sepsis, trauma, or major surgery.
  • Recognizing the risk factors for DIC and pre-DIC is crucial for early detection.

Acute vs. Chronic DIC: Understanding the Differences

Disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) is a complex disorder affecting the body’s blood clotting system. It comes in two distinct forms: acute DIC and chronic DIC. Recognizing these differences is crucial for understanding the disease and providing appropriate treatment.

Acute DIC

  • Definition: It’s a rapidly developing and life-threatening form of DIC. The clotting system activates excessively, leading to widespread clotting and bleeding within the blood vessels.
  • Symptoms: Often dramatic and include widespread blood clots (thrombosis) in organs like lungs, kidneys, and skin, and uncontrolled bleeding from various sites (gums, nose, gastrointestinal tract).
  • Causes: Typically triggered by sudden and severe events like sepsis, major trauma, burns, pancreatitis, or certain autoimmune diseases.
  • Treatment: Requires urgent medical intervention with anticoagulants to control clotting and supportive measures to address underlying causes and bleeding complications.

Chronic DIC

  • Definition: It’s a slower-developing and often less severe form of DIC. The clotting system remains mildly activated for an extended period, leading to gradual depletion of clotting factors and gradual build-up of fibrin degradation products.
  • Symptoms: Often non-specific and can include mild fatigue, low-grade fever, and occasional bleeding from gums or nose.
  • Causes: Associated with chronic underlying conditions like certain cancers (particularly adenocarcinoma), autoimmune diseases, liver cirrhosis, and chronic infections.
  • Treatment: Depends on the severity and underlying cause. May involve low-dose anticoagulants, management of the underlying condition, and addressing any bleeding complications.

Key Differences

FeatureAcute DICChronic DIC
SeverityLife-threateningLess severe
Clots and bleedingWidespread and dramaticGradual and mild
CausesSudden, severe eventsChronic underlying conditions
TreatmentUrgent anticoagulation and supportive careMay require anticoagulation, but focuses on managing underlying cause

Clinical features of DIC

The clinical features of disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) can vary depending on the severity of the condition. However, some of the most common clinical features of DIC include:

  • Bleeding: Bleeding is a common clinical feature of DIC. This can manifest as bruises, petechiae (small red spots on the skin), gingival bleeding, epistaxis (nosebleeds), or even major hemorrhage.
  • Thrombosis: Thrombosis is another common clinical feature of DIC. This can manifest as deep vein thrombosis (DVT), pulmonary embolism (PE), stroke, or myocardial infarction (heart attack).
  • Microvascular dysfunction: Microvascular dysfunction can lead to a variety of symptoms, such as organ dysfunction, shock, and death.
  • Fever: Fever is a common symptom of DIC. This is likely due to the release of inflammatory cytokines.
  • Hypotension (low blood pressure): Hypotension is a common symptom of DIC. This is likely due to the loss of blood volume and the effects of inflammatory cytokines.
  • Tachycardia (rapid heart rate): Tachycardia is a common symptom of DIC. This is likely due to the body’s attempt to compensate for the loss of blood volume.
  • Oliguria (decreased urine output): Oliguria is a common symptom of DIC. This is likely due to the effects of inflammatory cytokines on the kidneys.
  • Confusion: Confusion is a common symptom of DIC. This is likely due to the effects of inflammatory cytokines on the brain.
  • Coma: Coma is a rare but serious complication of DIC. This is likely due to the effects of inflammatory cytokines on the brain.

Laboratory investigations for disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC)

Presence of schistocytes in the peripheral blood smear
DIC With Microangiopathic Hemolytic Anemia. A 34 y/o female, Hb 8.6 g/dL, MCV 104.5 fL, MCHC 32.8 g/dL, platelets 11,000/uL, WBC 59,000/uL. Patient had a history of disseminated non-small cell carcinoma of the lung. She presented to the ER in extremis and expired within a few hours of admission. Morphology: Thrombocytopenia, 4+ schizocytes, 3+ spherocytes, 4+ polychromatophilic rbc. Diagnosis: Disseminated carcinomatosis with DIC. “DIC With Microangiopathic Hemolytic Anemia” by euthman is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The laboratory investigations for disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) are aimed at assessing the activation of both the coagulation and fibrinolytic systems. Some of the most common laboratory investigations for DIC include:

  • Complete blood count: Anemia and thrombocytopenia. Thrombocytopenia, a decrease in platelet count, is a hallmark feature of DIC.
  • Peripheral blood smear: Presence of schistocytes and thrombocytopenia. Schistocytes are fragmented red blood cells with a helmet-shaped appearance. They are a consequence of mechanical shearing forces caused by microthrombi formation in the microvasculature. The presence of schistocytes in the peripheral blood smear suggests DIC.
  • Prothrombin time (PT): The PT measures the time it takes for blood to clot. A prolonged PT can be indicative of a deficiency in clotting factors II, V, VII, or X.
  • Activated partial thromboplastin time (APTT): The APTT measures the time it takes for blood to clot. A prolonged APTT can be indicative of a deficiency in clotting factors VIII, IX, XI, or XII.
  • International normalized ratio (INR): The INR is a standardized measure of the PT. The INR is used to monitor the effects of warfarin therapy.
  • D-dimer: D-dimer is a fragment of fibrin that is produced during the breakdown of blood clots. An elevated D-dimer level can be indicative of increased fibrinolytic activity.
  • Fibrinogen: Fibrinogen is a clotting factor that is essential for the formation of blood clots. A decreased fibrinogen level can be indicative of consumption of clotting factors.
  • Platelet count: Platelets are blood cells that are involved in the clotting process. A decreased platelet count can be indicative of consumption of platelets.
  • Fibrin degradation products (FDPs): FDPs are fragments of fibrin that are produced during the breakdown of blood clots. An elevated FDP level can be indicative of increased fibrinolytic activity.

In addition to these laboratory investigations, other tests may be ordered to assess the underlying cause of DIC. For example, a blood culture may be ordered to rule out sepsis.

The interpretation of laboratory investigations for DIC can be complex. A combination of abnormal test results is typically needed to make a diagnosis of DIC. In some cases, a scoring system may be used to assess the likelihood of DIC.

DIC Scoring

There are several scoring systems used to diagnose DIC, each with its own strengths and limitations. Here’s a breakdown of the most common ones:


The ISTH DIC score, developed by the International Society of Thrombosis and Hemostasis, is a scoring system used to support the diagnosis of Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation (DIC). It uses laboratory parameters and clinical features to categorize patients into different levels of DIC severity. However, it’s important to remember that the score is not a definitive diagnostic tool and should be considered alongside clinical judgement and other information. A score of 5 or higher suggests probable overt DIC, while a lower score may indicate pre-DIC or other clotting disorders.

  • Advantages: Simple and widely available, good diagnostic accuracy.
  • Disadvantages: Subjective interpretation of some parameters, limited value in early DIC or specific causes like sepsis.
Platelet count (x 109/L)> 100
50 – 100 
< 50
Prothrombin Time (PT) prolongation (seconds)< 3 
3 – 6 
≥ 6 
Fibrinogen level (g/L)≥ 1.0
< 1.0
FDP/D-DimerNo increase
Moderate increase
Severe increase

Scoring and Interpretation:

  • Score 0-4: Unlikely for overt DIC. Needs further evaluation for alternative diagnoses.
  • Score 5: Suggests possible overt DIC. Requires clinical correlation and confirmation with other tests.
  • Score ≥ 5: Indicates probable overt DIC. Requires further investigation and immediate treatment.

Important Notes

  • The increase in FDP/D-dimer is subjective and depends on laboratory-specific cut-off values.
  • This score is mainly intended for patients with an underlying condition known to cause DIC.
  • It’s not as effective in diagnosing early DIC or specific causes like sepsis.
  • Interpretation should always involve clinical context and additional information like organ damage or bleeding tendencies.

Japanese Association for Acute Medicine (JAAM) DIC Score

The Japanese Association for Acute Medicine (JAAM) DIC Score is another scoring system used to diagnose DIC, specifically developed for critically ill patients in Japan. While similar to the ISTH score, it focuses on parameters directly related to organ damage caused by DIC, offering potential advantages in certain situations.

  • Advantages: More sensitive for early DIC and DIC in sepsis, considers organ damage.
  • Disadvantages: More complex, not widely used outside of Japan.
Platelet count (x 109/L)≥ 120
≥ 80 – < 120 or > 30% decrease within 24 hr
≥ 50 – < 80 or > 50% decrease within 24 hr
< 50


Prothrombin Time (PT) (value of patient/normal value)< 1.25 
≥ 1.25 – < 1.67
≥ 1.67
Fibrin/ FDP (µg/mL)< 10
≥ 10 – < 20
≥ 20 – < 40
≥ 40 
Antithrombin activity (%)≤ 701
Thrombin-antithrombin (TAT) complex, soluble fibrin, Prothrombin fragment (PF)1+2≥ 2-fold of upper limit in normal range1
Hepatic failureIf present-3
Diagnosis of DIC≥ 6

Sepsis-Induced Coagulopathy (SIC) Score

The Sepsis-Induced Coagulopathy (SIC) score is a three-variable scoring system designed to identify septic patients likely to have SIC and inform clinicians of mortality values associated with each score increment. It was developed following the Sepsis-3 definitions and incorporates new data from the Sepsis III datasets.

  • Advantages: Specifically tailored for sepsis, good accuracy in this context.
  • Disadvantages: Limited utility in non-sepsis DIC.
Platelet count (x 109/L)≥ 150
100 – 149 
< 100
International Normalized Ratio (INR)≤ 1.2 
> 1.2 – 1.4 
> 1.4 
Sequential Organ Failure Assessment (SOFA) score0 – 1
2 – 3
≥ 4


  • Score < 4: Unlikely for SIC.
  • Score >= 4 and Platelet/INR sum >= 3: Possible SIC, requires further investigation and monitoring.
  • Score >= 4 and Platelet/INR sum < 3: Unlikely for SIC despite SOFA dysfunction.

Benefits of the SIC Score

  • Simple and easy to calculate.
  • Focuses on sepsis-specific parameters.
  • Good discrimination for mortality risk stratification.


  • Relatively new, requires further validation in various settings.
  • May not be as accurate in non-sepsis contexts.
  • Doesn’t replace clinical judgment and needs individual patient assessment.

Additional Information

  • While the SIC score provides valuable insights, it’s not a definitive diagnosis for SIC.
  • Management of SIC involves addressing the underlying infection, considering anticoagulation therapy, and managing organ dysfunction based on the SOFA score.

Sequential Organ Failure Assessment (SOFA) Score

The Sequential Organ Failure Assessment (SOFA) score is a widely used scoring system in critical care to assess the degree of organ dysfunction in critically ill patients. While not specifically designed for DIC, it plays a crucial role in understanding a patient’s overall condition and contributes to the diagnosis and management of DIC alongside other scoring systems.

The score assigns points to six different organ systems based on specific parameters:

  1. Respiratory: PaO2/FiO2 ratio (oxygenation)
  2. Cardiovascular: Mean arterial pressure and need for vasopressors (blood pressure)
  3. Hepatic: Bilirubin level (liver function)
  4. Coagulation: Platelet count (blood clotting)
  5. Renal: Creatinine level and urine output (kidney function)
  6. Neurological: Glasgow Coma Scale score (mental state)
Organ SystemParameterValueScore
RespiratoryPaO2/FiO2 ratio≥ 400
300 – 399
200 – 299
100 – 199
≤ 99
CardiovascularMean arterial pressure (MAP) (mmHg) and VasopressorsNo hypotension or MAP ≥ 70
MAP < 70
Dopamine ≤ 5 or dobutamine (any dose)
Dopamine > 5, epinephrine ≤ 0.1, or norepinephrine ≤0.1
Dopamine > 15, epinephrine > 0.1, or norepinephrine > 0.1



HepaticBilirubin (mg/dL)≤ 1.2
1.3 – 1.9
2.0 – 5.9
6.0 – 11.9
≥ 12
CoagulationPlatelet count (x 109/L)≥ 150
100 – 149
50 – 99
21 – 49
≤ 20
RenalCreatinine (mg/dL) & Urine Output (ml/day)≤ 1.2
1.3 – 1.9 / < 500
2.0 – 3.4 / < 300
3.5 – 4.9 / < 150
≥ 5.0 or anuria
NeurologicalGlasgow Coma Scale (GCS)15
13 – 14
10 -12
6 – 9
≤ 6

*with ventilatory support


  • Each organ system receives a score between 0 and 4, with higher scores indicating greater dysfunction.
  • The total SOFA score is calculated by adding up the scores from all six systems.
  • A higher total score indicates more severe organ dysfunction and generally predicts a worse prognosis.


Consider a patient with the following values:

  • PaO2/FiO2 ratio: 250
  • MAP: 55 mmHg with low-dose vasopressors
  • Bilirubin: 3.5 mg/dL
  • Platelet count: 75,000/μL
  • Creatinine: 2.2 mg/dL, Urine Output: 400 mL/day
  • GCS: 11

Calculating the individual scores:

  • Respiratory: Score 2
  • Cardiovascular: Score 2
  • Hepatic: Score 2
  • Coagulation: Score 2
  • Renal: Score 1
  • Neurological: Score 1

Total SOFA score: 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 1 + 1 = 10

In this case, a SOFA score of 10 suggests significant organ dysfunction and a potentially critical condition.

Clinical Usefulness

  • Risk stratification: SOFA score helps predict mortality risk in critically ill patients, including those with DIC.
  • Monitoring response to treatment: Serial SOFA scores can track a patient’s response to treatments and their recovery from organ dysfunction.
  • Supporting DIC diagnosis: In conjunction with other DIC scoring systems like ISTH or JAAM, SOFA score can provide further context about organ damage from DIC and its severity.


  • SOFA score doesn’t diagnose specific conditions like DIC, it measures overall organ dysfunction.
  • Requires regular monitoring and data collection, increasing workload for healthcare professionals.
  • Cut-off values for defining severity may vary depending on the clinical context and specific disease processes.

Additional Notes

  • SOFA score is just one tool and should be interpreted in conjunction with other clinical information and diagnostic tests.
  • Cut-off values for defining severity may vary slightly depending on the specific setting and patient population.
  • Serial SOFA scores over time can be helpful in monitoring the response to treatment and patient’s overall progress.

How is disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) treated and managed?

The treatment and management of disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) are aimed at addressing the underlying cause and preventing further clotting and bleeding. The specific treatment approach will vary depending on the severity of the condition and the underlying cause.

  • Treatment of the underlying cause: The most important step in the treatment of DIC is to identify and address the underlying cause. This may involve treating an infection, removing a tumor, or controlling bleeding.
  • Replacement of clotting factors and platelets: If clotting factors or platelets are consumed, they may need to be replaced. This can be done with transfusions of fresh frozen plasma, cryoprecipitate, or platelets.
  • Anticoagulation therapy: Anticoagulation therapy can be used to prevent further clotting. This may involve the use of heparin, warfarin, or other anticoagulant medications.
  • Fibrinolytic therapy: Fibrinolytic therapy can be used to break down blood clots. This may involve the use of alteplase, streptokinase, or other fibrinolytic medications.

In addition to these specific treatments, supportive care is also important. This may include:

  • Fluid resuscitation: Fluid resuscitation may be necessary to maintain blood volume and blood pressure.
  • Organ support: Organ support may be necessary if DIC has caused damage to organs such as the kidneys, liver, or lungs.
  • Nutritional support: Nutritional support may be necessary to ensure that the body is getting the nutrients it needs to heal.

The prognosis of DIC depends on the severity of the condition and the underlying cause. With early diagnosis and appropriate treatment, the outcome can be improved. However, DIC is a serious condition with a high mortality rate.

Key Points of DIC


Widespread activation of coagulation and fibrinolytic pathways as a secondary complication causing generalized hemorrhage and thrombosis.


  • Obstetric complications
    • Abruptio placentae
    • Amniotic fluid embolism
    • Eclampsia & toxemia
    • Retained fetus / placenta
    • Septic abortion
  • Vascular disorders
    • Aortic aneurysm
    • Cardiac bypass surgery
    • Giant hemangioma
  • Widespread tissue injury
    • Burns
    • Surgery
    • Trauma
  • Miscellaneous
    • Heat stroke
    • Hypothermia
    • Liver failure
    • Pancreatitis
    • Shock
    • Snake bites

Pathophysiology of DIC

Unveiling the Devastating Cascade of disseminated intravascular coagulation: A Microscopic Journey through Hemolysis, Thrombosis, and Platelet Consumption in DIC
Hemolysis, the premature destruction of red blood cells, sets the stage for DIC. As red blood cells rupture, they release their contents, including hemoglobin and tissue factor, into the bloodstream. Tissue factor, a potent activator of coagulation, triggers the formation of fibrin clots within the blood vessels. These clots, or thrombi, impede blood flow to vital organs, leading to tissue ischemia and dysfunction. Platelets, essential components of the hemostatic system, are rapidly consumed in the formation and breakdown of fibrin clots. This depletion of platelets compromises the body’s ability to control bleeding, further exacerbating the complications of DIC.

Clinical features

  • Bleeding
  • Thrombosis
  • Tissue damage and necrosis due to thrombosis

Laboratory investigations

Peripheral blood characteristics

Microangiopathic hemolytic anemia, thrombocytopenia

Other important investigations and expected results

Treatment and management

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is DIC and how serious is it?

DIC (Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation) is a serious condition where your body’s blood clotting system goes haywire. Normally, clotting helps seal wounds and prevent excessive bleeding. But in DIC, the clotting gets out of control, leading to widespread clot formation and potential bleeding complications. DIC can be life-threatening if not identified and treated promptly. It often occurs alongside other critical conditions like sepsis, trauma, or cancer.

What are the symptoms of DIC?

DIC can present with a variety of symptoms, ranging from subtle to life-threatening. Common signs include bleeding from gums, nose, or other sites, often easy bruising, skin changes for example purplish or reddish skin patches due to small clots (petechiae) or larger bruises, unexplained pain in organs deprived of blood due to blocked vessels, like chest pain (lungs) or abdominal pain (bowels), swelling due to fluid leakage from damaged blood vessels and fever which often present due to the underlying cause or the inflammatory response in DIC. Red flags which require immediate medical attention include severe or uncontrollable bleeding for example heavy coughing up blood, bloody stools, large bruises, or bleeding internally, confusion or altered mental state, shortness of breath or signs of shock like rapid heart rate, pale skin, cold sweat, due to severe blood loss or organ dysfunction.

What happens during disseminated intravascular coagulation?

DIC is triggered by conditions like infections, trauma, or cancer, where the normally controlled clotting system goes haywire. Inflammatory signals activate numerous pathways, causing widespread microclots to form throughout small vessels. These blockages starve vital organs of oxygen and nutrients, while simultaneously depleting essential clotting factors. As if that wasn’t enough, damaged blood vessel walls become leaky, leading to uncontrolled bleeding. This vicious cycle of clotting and bleeding continues, causing organ dysfunction and potentially leading to fatal complications.

What causes disseminated intravascular coagulation?

Here’s a brief list of some common causes of Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation (DIC):


  • Sepsis (severe infection with widespread inflammation)
  • Bacterial infections (especially gram-negative bacteria)
  • Viral infections (e.g., dengue fever, influenza)

Trauma and tissue damage

  • Severe injuries (e.g., car accidents, burns)
  • Major surgery
  • Snakebites

Certain medical conditions

  • Cancer (especially leukemia, disseminated cancers)
  • Pregnancy complications (e.g., preeclampsia, HELLP syndrome)
  • Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS)
  • Vasculitis (inflammation of blood vessels)

Other causes:

  • Transfusion reactions
  • Severe allergic reactions
  • Heatstroke

What are the 3 most common conditions associated with DIC?

While the specific ranking might vary depending on the clinical setting and population, the 3 most common conditions associated with DIC are generally considered to be:

  1. Sepsis: This severe systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS) caused by infection is the most frequent trigger for DIC, often leading to rapid and widespread activation of the coagulation system.
  2. Cancer: Particularly disseminated cancers and certain types like leukemia can significantly increase the risk of DIC due to various mechanisms, including tissue damage, tumor procoagulant activity, and vascular complications.
  3. Pregnancy complications: Conditions like preeclampsia, HELLP syndrome, and placental abruption can disrupt the delicate balance of coagulation in pregnancy, leading to DIC and potentially life-threatening complications for both mother and baby.

How do we diagnose DIC?

Diagnosing DIC involves a multifaceted approach combining clinical evaluation and laboratory tests.

Clinical evaluation

  • Symptoms and signs: Unexplained bleeding, pain, swelling, fever, confusion, and organ dysfunction can raise suspicion for DIC.
  • Medical history: Underlying conditions like sepsis, cancer, or pregnancy complications are crucial clues.
  • Physical examination: Signs like petechiae, purpura, and abnormal vital signs can support the diagnosis.

Laboratory tests

  • Coagulation tests: Measuring platelet count, prothrombin time, activated partial thromboplastin time, and fibrinogen level can assess clotting function and potential abnormalities.
  • D-dimer: This marker of fibrin degradation suggests increased clot formation and breakdown.
  • Other blood tests: Depending on the suspected cause, tests for infection, inflammation, or specific organ function might be needed.

Scoring systems

Tools like the ISTH score or JAAM score use specific laboratory values to provide a numerical score and increase diagnostic accuracy, particularly in borderline cases.

What happens if DIC is left untreated?

Left untreated, DIC unfolds like a devastating cascade, wreaking havoc throughout your body. The uncontrolled clotting continues, forming tiny blockages in vital organs like lungs, kidneys, and brain. These blockages starve them of oxygen and nutrients, leading to progressive dysfunction and potentially organ failure. Simultaneously, depleted clotting factors and damaged blood vessels contribute to uncontrolled bleeding, further compounding the problem. This vicious cycle of clotting and bleeding escalates, leading to shock, coma, and potentially death. Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial to break this cycle, prevent organ damage, and improve chances of survival. 

Can DIC be prevented?

Preventing DIC entirely isn’t always possible, as it often arises from unpredictable events like severe infections or trauma. However, reducing the risk factors and addressing underlying conditions can go a long way in creating a less favorable environment for DIC:

  • Managing chronic conditions: Effectively controlling illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure, or autoimmune diseases can minimize inflammatory triggers.
  • Early treatment of infections: Prompt antibiotic use for infections and aggressive management of sepsis can prevent inflammation from escalating to DIC.
  • Careful monitoring during pregnancy: Regular prenatal care and prompt intervention in preeclampsia or HELLP syndrome can help maintain proper coagulation balance.
  • Minimizing invasive procedures: Reducing unnecessary surgeries or invasive procedures when possible can lessen potential tissue damage and inflammatory responses.

While complete prevention might not be guaranteed, mitigating risk factors and seeking timely medical attention for underlying conditions are crucial steps in decreasing the likelihood of DIC and its potentially devastating consequences.

What is the difference between DIC and blood clots?

Both DIC and blood clots involve the formation of abnormal clots within the bloodstream, but they differ significantly in their nature and impact:

Blood Clots

  • Localized: Blood clots typically form at specific sites of injury or damage to blood vessels, acting as a natural repair mechanism to stop bleeding.
  • Isolated: They don’t necessarily affect other parts of the body and may resolve naturally over time.
  • Varying Severity: Some blood clots, like deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or pulmonary embolism (PE), can be serious but generally have localized effects.

DIC (Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation)

  • Widespread: In DIC, numerous small clots form throughout the body, blocking blood flow in various organs and tissues.
  • Systemic: This widespread clotting disrupts the entire blood clotting system, leading to both excessive clotting and uncontrolled bleeding.
  • Life-Threatening: DIC can lead to organ damage, multi-organ failure, and even death if not treated promptly.

How to treat disseminated intravascular coagulation?

Treatment for DIC depends on two key goals:

  1. Addressing the underlying cause: This is essential to stop the trigger fueling the clotting cascade. For example, treating an infection with antibiotics, removing damaged tissue after trauma, or controlling cancer progression are crucial first steps.
  2. Managing the coagulation abnormalities: This aims to balance uncontrolled clotting and bleeding risks. Several approaches can be taken:
  • Anticoagulants: Medications like heparin or warfarin can prevent further clot formation, but need careful monitoring due to potential bleeding complications.
  • Blood transfusions: Replacing lost blood and clotting factors like platelets and plasma can be necessary to stop bleeding and support organ function.
  • Anti-inflammatory therapy: In specific cases, medications targeting inflammatory pathways might be considered to control excessive activation and clot formation.

Are there any alternative or natural treatments for DIC?

Unfortunately, there are no proven alternative or natural treatments for DIC. While some natural products might have potential anticoagulant or anti-inflammatory properties in general, their effectiveness and safety in treating DIC haven’t been established through rigorous scientific research. In fact, using such products could potentially interfere with conventional treatments and worsen the condition.

Who is at greatest risk for DIC?

While anyone can develop DIC under certain circumstances, specific groups are at higher risk due to various factors. Here are some of the most common groups at increased risk:

Conditions causing widespread inflammation and tissue damage

  • Sepsis: A severe infection in the bloodstream is the most common cause of DIC.
  • Trauma: Major injuries, burns, and head trauma can trigger DIC.
  • Surgery: Extensive or complex surgeries, particularly those involving cancer, can increase the risk.
  • Pancreatitis: Inflammation of the pancreas can lead to DIC.
  • Pre-eclampsia: A pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure and protein in the urine.

Underlying medical conditions

  • Cancer: Certain cancers, especially those with extensive tumor spread, can cause DIC.
  • Liver disease: Liver damage can impair the body’s ability to produce clotting factors, increasing the risk of DIC.
  • Vascular diseases: Conditions like vasculitis (inflammation of blood vessels) can contribute to DIC.

Other factors

  • Pregnancy complications: Abruption placenta (premature separation of the placenta), retained placenta, and amniotic fluid embolism can trigger DIC.
  • Snake bites: Bites from certain venomous snakes can cause DIC.
  • Severe allergic reactions: Anaphylactic reactions can rarely lead to DIC.
  • Hemolytic transfusion reactions: Incompatibility between donated and recipient blood can trigger DIC.

Is preeclampsia a risk factor for DIC?

Yes, preeclampsia can be a significant risk factor for DIC, although the exact risk depends on the severity of the condition. Here’s why:

  • Preeclampsia disrupts the normal function of the placenta, leading to widespread damage and inflammation. This inflammation triggers the release of substances that activate the clotting system, potentially leading to uncontrolled clotting and DIC.
  • The severity of preeclampsia plays a crucial role. Women with severe preeclampsia, characterized by high blood pressure, protein in the urine, and organ damage, are at much higher risk of developing DIC compared to those with mild preeclampsia.
  • Additional complications arising from preeclampsia, such as placental abruption (premature separation of the placenta) or HELLP syndrome (a severe complication involving hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes, and low platelets), further increase the risk of DIC.

Therefore, while preeclampsia itself poses a risk for DIC, the severity of the condition and any accompanying complications significantly influence the individual risk level.

What predisposes a pregnant woman to DIC?

Several factors can predispose a pregnant woman to DIC, increasing her risk of developing this potentially life-threatening condition. Here are some key ones:

Obstetric Complications

  • Placental abruption: This occurs when the placenta prematurely detaches from the uterine wall, disrupting blood flow and triggering inflammation, potentially leading to DIC.
  • Retained placenta: When the placenta remains partially or entirely in the uterus after childbirth, it can cause bleeding and tissue breakdown, increasing the risk of DIC.
  • Amniotic fluid embolism: Although rare, this serious complication involves the entry of amniotic fluid and fetal debris into the mother’s bloodstream, causing a severe inflammatory response and potentially triggering DIC.
  • HELLP syndrome: This pregnancy-specific condition involving hemolysis (red blood cell destruction), elevated liver enzymes, and low platelets can progress to DIC if not managed promptly.
  • Preeclampsia/eclampsia: This condition characterized by high blood pressure and protein in the urine can lead to widespread inflammation and damage in the mother’s body, increasing the risk of DIC, especially in severe cases.

Underlying Medical Conditions

  • Thrombophilia: Certain inherited or acquired conditions can make a woman more prone to blood clots, including DIC, during pregnancy.
  • Autoimmune diseases: Conditions like lupus or antiphospholipid syndrome can increase the risk of blood clotting complications like DIC.
  • Severe infections: Sepsis, a life-threatening infection spreading through the bloodstream, can trigger DIC in pregnant women.
  • Liver or kidney disease: These pre-existing conditions can impair the body’s ability to regulate clotting, making pregnant women more susceptible to DIC.

Other Factors

  • Multiple pregnancy: Carrying twins, triplets, or more fetuses increases the risk of complications like preeclampsia and placental abruption, indirectly contributing to a higher risk of DIC.
  • Advanced maternal age: While the exact reason is unclear, older mothers may have a slightly higher risk of DIC compared to younger women.

It’s important to note that not everyone with these risk factors will develop DIC. However, being aware of these predisposing factors and seeking proper prenatal care and monitoring can help identify potential risks and intervene promptly if needed.

Can cancer lead to DIC?

Yes, cancer can certainly lead to DIC. In fact, cancer is one of the most common causes of DIC, alongside severe infections and trauma. Here’s how:

Mechanisms of Cancer-Induced DIC

  • Direct tumor effects: Certain cancers, particularly those with extensive tumor spread, can release substances that activate the clotting system, leading to uncontrolled clotting and DIC.
  • Tissue damage and inflammation: As tumors grow and invade surrounding tissues, they can cause significant damage and inflammation, triggering the release of clotting factors and contributing to DIC.
  • Treatment side effects: Chemotherapy and other cancer treatments can sometimes damage blood vessels or decrease platelets, increasing the risk of bleeding and potentially triggering DIC.

Types of Cancers with Higher Risk

  • Leukemias: Acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) is particularly associated with DIC.
  • Solid tumors: Cancers of the prostate, lung, pancreas, breast, stomach, melanoma, gallbladder, and ovary are often linked to DIC risk.

What is the long-term prognosis for someone with DIC?

The long-term prognosis for someone with DIC depends on several factors, making it difficult to give a definitive answer. Here’s a breakdown of the key elements influencing the outcome:

Severity and Cause of DIC

  • Mild DIC often resolves spontaneously or with minimal intervention, offering a good prognosis.
  • Severe DIC with extensive organ damage or prolonged clotting dysfunction carries a higher risk of complications and worsens the prognosis.
  • The underlying cause of DIC significantly affects the outlook. Conditions like sepsis or severe trauma with ongoing complications can have a poorer prognosis compared to DIC managed successfully with cancer treatment.

Timely Diagnosis and Treatment

  • Early diagnosis and prompt intervention with appropriate treatment, like anticoagulants or blood transfusions, significantly improve the prognosis.
  • Delays in diagnosis or inadequate treatment can lead to severe complications and worsen the outcome.

Individual Health Status

  • Pre-existing health conditions like heart disease, kidney disease, or weakened immune system can impact the body’s ability to cope with DIC and its treatment, influencing the prognosis.
  • Overall health and age also play a role, with younger, healthier individuals generally having a better prognosis than those with compromised health.

Complications of DIC

  • The development of complications like organ failure, severe bleeding, or blood clots can significantly worsen the prognosis and decrease life expectancy.

Overall, the long-term prognosis for someone with DIC varies greatly depending on the individual circumstances. While it’s impossible to predict with certainty, understanding the influencing factors and seeking prompt medical attention can significantly improve the chances of a favorable outcome.

My loved one has been diagnosed with DIC, what can I expect?

It’s important to remember that DIC can have different prognoses depending on the severity and underlying cause. However, here’s some general information that may be helpful:

Understanding DIC

  • DIC is a complex condition where uncontrolled blood clotting occurs throughout the body, leading to both bleeding and clotting problems.
  • Severity of DIC: Prognosis and expected course of treatment depend on the severity of the condition. Mild DIC might resolve quickly, while severe cases require intensive management.
  • Underlying cause: The underlying cause of DIC greatly influences treatment and outcomes. Addressing the root cause is crucial for managing DIC effectively.
  • Overall health: Your loved one’s pre-existing health conditions and age can impact their ability to withstand the effects of DIC and its treatment.

What to expect

  • Treatment: The treatment plan will depend on the underlying cause of DIC and its severity. This might involve treatments specific to the cause, like antibiotics for infections or surgical interventions for injuries. It may involve medications to manage blood clotting, blood transfusions, and addressing the underlying condition if possible.
  • Hospitalization: Your loved one will likely need hospitalization for monitoring and treatment, depending on their condition.
  • Monitoring: Close monitoring of vital signs, blood tests, and other parameters are crucial to assess response to treatment and identify any complications.
  • Emotional impact: Both you and your loved one may experience emotional distress during this time. Seeking support from family, friends, or a therapist can be helpful.

Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only and is specifically targeted towards medical students. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. While the information presented here is derived from credible medical sources and is believed to be accurate and up-to-date, it is not guaranteed to be complete or error-free. See additional information.


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