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A Serious Look at Fainting

Fainting, also called syncope (SIN-koh-pee) is a brief loss of consciousness. This leads to falling down or needing to lie down, followed by a quick recovery. In a young, healthy person, 1 episode of fainting is not usually cause for alarm. But in rare cases, it can be a sign of a serious health condition. Syncope is usually caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure or heart rate that causes decreased blood flow to the brain. You may have sweaty palms, dizziness, lightheadedness, problems seeing, or nausea before fainting. 

In young people, the problem usually has no serious cause. But in some cases it can be due to an underlying heart problem. Triggers include:

  • Severe emotional upsets

  • Fear

  • Standing for a long time

  • Suddenly standing up

  • Coughing very hard

  • Dehydration or loss of body fluid

  • Very rarely, stimulants, such as caffeine

An older person who has a fainting episode should call his or her healthcare provider. It is important to diagnose the cause of the fainting.

Serious causes include:

  • Fast or slow abnormal heart rhythms

  • Coronary artery disease

  • Severe heart valve disease

  • Anemia or blood loss

  • Medicine side effects

  • Dehydration, although this is not very common 

Most people who faint stay out a few seconds to less than a minute. If the person is unconscious for a longer time, call 911.

What to do

  • Know your triggers or the things that can make you faint. 

  • Ask your healthcare provider what you can do to prevent fainting. For example, your provider may suggest that you: 

    • Get up slowly if you have been sitting or lying down for a long period of time. Exercising your legs while standing for long periods may help keep your blood moving.

    • Have food or liquids containing salt, such as crackers, pretzels, or a sports drink. Salt will raise blood pressure, making a sudden drop less likely. But added salt isn't good for many people who have high blood pressure. So ask your provider before increasing your salt intake.

    • Wear compression stockings

  • If you feel like you are going to faint:

    • Make sure you're in a safe place, then sit down right away so you don't fall and injure yourself.

    • Lie down after you've safely reached a sitting position. Prop your feet up on some pillows or a jacket so that your feet are above the level of your heart. This raises blood flow to the heart and in turn the brain--exactly what you need.

    • If you can't lie down, place your head between your knees to increase circulation to your brain.

    • Turn onto your side to prevent choking if you feel nauseous.

  • If you do faint, remain lying down for 10 or 15 minutes once you wake up. Check to see if you have a significant injury such as head trauma or a hip injury. Also, try moving your legs and then get up slowly.

Online Medical Reviewer: Kang, Steven, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Fetterman, Anne, RN, BSN
Date Last Reviewed: 11/1/2016
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