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For the majority of patients presenting with gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding, hematemesis, hematochezia, or melena will be the chief complaint. Occasionally, patients may present with only dizziness, weakness, lethargy, angina, or syncope. Upper GI bleeding often presents with vomiting fresh blood (hematemesis), vomiting of dark-colored, granular material (“coffee-ground” emesis), and/or black tarry stools (melena). The passing of blood from rectum (hematochezia) usually indicates bleeding from the lower GI tract. The severity of blood loss must be assessed quickly so that lifesaving therapeutic interventions can be instituted. Factors that increase morbidity and mortality include hemodynamic instability, ongoing symptoms suggesting active bleeding, low initial hemoglobin, age over 65, abnormalities in renal, hepatic, and cardiac function, and other comorbidities.


Figure 16–1.

Immediate management of life-threatening bleeding. BUN, blood urea nitrogen; FFP, fresh frozen plasma; PT, prothrombin time; PTT, partial thromboplastin time.


Any patient presenting to the emergency department with ongoing hematemesis or hematochezia is at significant risk of exsanguination, and prompt volume resuscitation must begin at once. Proceed with initial stabilization procedures as described below.


Place the patient in a monitored bed and obtain a full set of vital signs including oxygen saturation. If the initial systolic blood pressure is greater than 100, and the pulse is less than 100 beats/min in the supine position, consider obtaining orthostatic blood pressure and pulse rate measurements.

Recognize Risk Factors for Severe Gastrointestinal Bleeding

Signs, symptoms, or history that may indicate ongoing hemorrhage are as follows:

  • Profuse hematemesis or hematochezia

  • Hypotension, tachycardia, or signs of shock

  • Postural hypotension, tachycardia, or light-headedness

  • Possible aortoenteric fistula (history of abdominal aortic aneurysm repair or palpable pulsating abdominal mass)

  • Known or suspected esophageal varices

  • Previous history of GI bleeding

  • History of diverticulosis

Initial Stabilization Procedures

As with any emergency, always address your patient’s ABCs first.

A. Assess Need for Airway Management

Consider endotracheal intubation for patients with ongoing massive hematemesis or if signs and symptoms of shock are present. Patients with massive hematemesis may aspirate blood leading to respiratory compromise or may present with altered mental status from hypovolemic shock. If immediate airway control is not needed, provide supplemental oxygen as needed to maintain oxygen saturation at greater than 93%.

B. Obtain Venous Access

Insert two large-bore intravenous (IV) catheters (18 gauge or larger) into peripheral veins. If peripheral access cannot be obtained, consider placement of a central venous catheter or an intraosseous line.

C. Begin Fluid ...

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