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Quick Facts

Vegetative State

By

The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Feb 2021| Content last modified Feb 2021
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What is a vegetative state?

A vegetative state is when people with brain damage appear to be awake but don't do any purposeful actions or respond to what's going on around them.

  • A person in a vegetative state has basic automatic movements, such as breathing, coughing, yawning, or swallowing but doesn't do anything purposeful

  • Some people recover, but most die within 6 months

  • People in a vegetative state for longer than a few months are unlikely to recover

What causes a vegetative state?

What are the symptoms of a vegetative state?

People in a vegetative state can:

  • Open their eyes and blink

  • Sleep and wake up on a regular schedule

  • Do basic automatic movements, such as breathing, sucking, chewing, gagging, coughing, and swallowing

  • Be startled by loud sounds

People in a vegetative state can't:

  • Be aware of what’s going on around them

  • Speak or follow instructions

  • Think or move their body on purpose, such as to pull away from something painful

  • Control when they urinate or pass stool

How can doctors tell if someone is in a vegetative state?

How do doctors treat someone in a vegetative state?

There's no treatment to make a vegetative state get better. People sometimes recover a bit on their own depending on what their original problem was and how severe it was. People don't come back to normal, but a few relearn how to talk and understand people.

A person in a vegetative state needs long-term care, including:

If a person has been in a vegetative state for a long time and show no signs of recovering, doctors may talk to the family about not giving life-sustaining treatment in the event of a new illness or complication. Doctors and the person's family consider what the person would want and review any instructions available in a living will (advance directive Advance Directives Health care advance directives are legal documents that communicate a person’s wishes about health care decisions in the event the person becomes incapable of making health care decisions. There... read more ).

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