Senior Care Insurance Services

12 Medical Conditions That Can Kill You Quickly

K. Grossman

Sometimes illness or disease gradually sneaks up on you. A twinge here, an ache there. What begins as an irritation can lead to the realization that something is wrong and medical attention is needed. Usually, there is plenty of time to seek medical attention, obtain a diagnosis, and begin treatment. However, there are other medical conditions that can strike suddenly and without warning. Some of these conditions are so severe that a lack of prompt medical attention can quickly result in death—sometimes within only hours.

12. Sudden Cardiac Arrest


This heart condition is often confused with a heart attack, but the two conditions cause the heart to stop beating by different mechanisms. In a heart attack, a blockage in blood vessels prevents blood from reaching the heart. Sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), on the other hand, is caused by an electrical problem, or arrhythmia, within the heart. SCA must be treated within minutes in order to prevent death. The steps in treating someone with SCA are to first dial 9-1-1 to summon emergency medical services. Next, use a device called an automated external defibrillator or hands-only CPR to aid the heart until paramedics arrive.

11. Stroke


According to the American Stroke Association, stroke is the number five cause of death in the United States. A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is blocked in one of two ways. It may be caused by a clot in a blood vessel or when a blood vessel bursts. Depriving the brain of oxygen can allow brain cells to die and can lead to death if not treated quickly. To prevent death, know the FAST warning signs of stroke. If you suspect someone is having a stroke, check the person’s face for drooping. Next, ask the person to raise both arms above the head. Take note if one of the arms starts to drift back down. Then, evaluate the person’s speech, listening for slurred or unintelligible words. If you see any of these signs of stroke, know that it is time to dial 9-1-1 for emergency medical treatment.

10. Cholera


Cholera is a deadly disease, caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, which causes severe watery diarrhea. The World Health Organization states that signs of cholera can appear anywhere from 12 hours to five days after drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated food. Without treatment, this illness can cause death within hours. However, if caught early, it is easily treatable. The primary treatment for cholera involves rehydration with IV fluids. In severe cases, antibiotics may be helpful. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that zinc treatment can speed the recovery of children infected with cholera.

9. Dengue Fever


Dengue can be a risk when traveling to tropical or subtropical areas. Mild forms of dengue can progress to dengue hemorrhagic fever, in which fluid escapes from the circulatory system and shock and death can occur. Dengue is carried by mosquitoes and there is no vaccine against this illness. Therefore, the best way to avoid contracting dengue is to avoid mosquito bites. When visiting subtropical areas, be sure to keep outdoor areas free of standing water, as this is where mosquitoes like to lay eggs. Use mosquito repellent and wear clothing with long sleeves to protect your skin.

8. Diabetic Ketoacidosis


Diabetic ketoacidosis occurs when a diabetic patient’s body lacks the insulin required to break glucose down to form the energy needed by the body. When this happens, the body begins to release ketones in order to break down fat instead of glucose. High levels of ketones in the blood can be poisonous, leading to coma or death. Large amounts of ketones can accumulate in the blood when a patient has been sick or has not injected the proper amount of insulin. It can also occur when a diabetic patient has not eaten enough food. Symptoms include dry mouth and thirst, frequent urination, fatigue, and nausea or vomiting.

7. Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome


This virus is spread through contact with the droppings, urine, or saliva of infected wild rodents. The mortality rate of this infection is high at 38%. Fortunately, this disease is very rare. Symptoms occur one to five weeks following exposure and include fever, fatigue, and aching back, thigh, hip, or shoulder muscles. As the disease progresses, the lungs may fill with fluid, resulting in respiratory distress and death. Treatment for hantavirus pulmonary syndrome includes hospitalization, medications for pain and fever, and oxygen therapy.

6. Malaria


Mosquitoes in warm climates such as sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia may carry malaria parasites that are transmitted to humans through mosquito bites. Plasmodium falciparum is one type of malaria that causes severe illness and death. Malaria may present with flu-like symptoms such as chills, headache, muscle aches, and fatigue. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are other symptoms of this disease. Malaria may also cause anemia and jaundice. Left untreated, malaria can cause kidney failure, coma, and death. The CDC maintains a list of recommended drugs for preventing and treating malaria.

5. Meningococcal Disease


The bacteria Neisseria meningitidis can cause meningococcal meningitis, which is an inflammation of the membranes that protect the brain and spinal cord. This disease can present as fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, and vomiting and requires immediate medical attention. If this bacterium infects the blood of a victim, it can cause meningococcal septicemia, also known as meningococcemia. Fever, fatigue, chills, severe aches, and rapid breathing may be symptoms. As the infection progresses, a dark purplish rash may appear. Both of these diseases can cause death in only a matter of hours. Diagnosis involves sampling the cerebrospinal fluid to test for N. meningitidis.



Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a deadly staph infection that is resistant to many antibiotics. This infection may be spread in hospitals, medical clinics, or in a community. This infection begins as swollen, red bumps on the skin that quickly become deep and painful ulcers. If the bacterium spreads deeper into the body, it can affect the bones, joints, bloodstream, and organs of the victim. While MRSA is resistant to many antibiotics, there are some antibiotics that can treat this condition. Additionally, healthcare personnel will be able to treat any other organ damage that has occurred due to the infection.

3. Necrotizing Fasciitis


This infection is also known as invasive group A streptococcal infection. You may have even heard it called by the disturbing name “flesh-eating bacteria.” This infection is very rare, but when it occurs it can spread quickly and lead to death. The bacteria usually enter the body through open areas in the skin such as cuts, burns, insect bites, or surgical wounds. It is especially important to seek medical treatment following surgery if you notice symptoms of a streptococcal infection These include fever, quickly spreading redness and swelling, or severe pain that involves more than the surgical wound area. Prompt treatment with antibiotics and surgery can stop the spread of this devastating infection.

2. Septic Shock


Sepsis is a condition in which the body has an overwhelming response to infection, resulting in events that can damage many body organs. As sepsis progresses, it can develop into septic shock. In this case, blood pressure rapidly falls and can result in death. According to the Mayo Clinic, signs of septic shock following an infection include mental confusion, low blood pressure, and high serum levels of lactic acid. Treatment for septic shock includes antibiotics, IV fluids, and blood pressure medications. Some patients also require oxygen treatment. Patients with kidney involvement may require dialysis.

1. Toxic Shock Syndrome


Toxic shock syndrome can be caused by several bacteria including S. aureus, C. sordellii, and S. pyogenes. While this syndrome has been associated with tampon use, it can also be caused by bacteria that enter the skin through wounds or surgical procedures. As the bacteria spread toxins throughout the body, this infection can be life-threatening. Symptoms include fever, chills, diarrhea, dizziness, and low blood pressure. IV antibiotics will prevent further spread of this infection, but toxins present in the bloodstream may need to be removed with immune globulin therapy.