What Is a Coma?

What Is a Coma?

What do you think about when you hear the word coma (say: ko-muh)? Does it make you think of someone in a deep sleep, or the way you feel after eating too much Thanksgiving turkey? Does the word remind you of a TV soap opera, where it seems that at least one character is always in a coma?

A coma can be difficult to understand, especially because people sometimes jokingly use the words coma and comatose (say: ko-muh-tose, which means in a coma or coma-like state) to describe people who aren't paying attention or who are drowsy or sleeping. But a coma is a serious condition that has nothing to do with sleep.

What Happens When Someone Is in a Coma?

Someone who is in a coma is unconscious and will not respond to voices, other sounds, or any sort of activity going on nearby. The person is still alive, but the brain is functioning at its lowest stage of alertness. You can't shake and wake up someone who is in a coma like you can someone who has just fallen asleep.

What Can Cause a Coma?

Comas can be caused by different things, including:

  • a severe injury to the head that hurts the brain
  • seizures
  • infections involving the brain
  • brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen for too long
  • an overdose (taking too much) of medicine or other drugs
  • a stroke

When one of these things happens, it can mess up how the brain's cells work. This can hurt the parts of the brain that make someone conscious, and if those parts stop working, the person will stay unconscious.

what is coma

How Do People Take Care of Someone in a Coma?

Someone in a coma usually needs to be cared for in the intensive care unit (ICU) of the hospital. There, the person can get extra care and attention from doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff. They make sure the person gets fluids, nutrients, and any medicines needed to keep the body as healthy as possible. These are sometimes given through a tiny plastic tube inserted in a vein or through a feeding tube that brings fluids and nutrients directly to the stomach.

Some comatose people are unable to breathe on their own and need the help of a ventilator (say: ven-tih-lay-ter), a machine that pumps air into the lungs through a tube placed in the windpipe. The hospital staff also tries to prevent bedsores in someone who is comatose. Bedsores are open sores on the body that come from lying in one place for too long without moving at all.

It can be very upsetting and frustrating for a person's family to see someone they love in a coma, and they may feel scared and helpless. But they can help take care of the person. Taking time to visit the hospital and read to, talk to, and even play music for the patient are important because it's possible that the person may be able to hear what's going on, even if he or she can't respond.

What Happens After a Coma?

Usually, a coma does not last more than a few weeks. Sometimes, however, a person stays in a coma for a long time — even years — and will be able to do very little except breathe on his or her own.

Most people do come out of comas, however. Some of them are able to return to the normal lives they had before they got sick. On TV, someone in a coma usually wakes up right away, looks around, and is able to think and talk normally.

But in real life, this rarely happens. When coming out of a coma, a person will often be confused and can only slowly respond to what's going on. It will take time for the person to start feeling better.

Whether someone fully returns to normal after being in a coma depends on what caused the coma and how badly the brain may have been hurt. Sometimes people who come out of comas are just as they were before — they can remember what happened to them before the coma and can do everything they used to do.

Other people may need therapy to relearn basic things like tying their shoes, eating with a fork or spoon, or learning to walk all over again. They may also have problems with speaking or remembering things.

Over time and with the help of therapists, however, many people who have been in a coma can make a lot of progress. They may not be exactly like they were before the coma, but they can do many things and enjoy life with their family and friends.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: October 2011

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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