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A Serious Look at Fainting

It sounds like melodrama: People hear bad news or see blood, and the next thing you know they've fainted.

But it's a reality for many Americans who are prone to fainting (called "syncope" by doctors). Fainting is a brief loss of consciousness, which leads to falling down or needing to lie down, followed by spontaneous recovery. In a young, healthy person, one episode of fainting is not usually cause for alarm, although it can be a sign of a serious health condition. It is usually caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure that results in decreased blood flow to the brain. The body's response to some kinds of stress, standing too long, and other fairly simple causes can trigger fainting.

In young people, the problem usually has no serious cause, although sometimes it can indicate an underlying heart problem. Triggers include:

  • Severe emotional distress

  • Fear

  • Standing for a long time

  • Suddenly standing up

  • Coughing very hard

  • Dehydration

  • Stimulants, such as caffeine

An older person who has a fainting episode should call his/her doctor. It is important to have the cause of the fainting diagnosed.

Serious causes include:

  • Seizures

  • Abnormal heartbeat or other heart problems

  • Circulatory problems that limit blood flow to the brain

  • Brain or nervous system disturbances

  • Dehydration

Whatever the cause, all fainting is the result of a sudden drop in blood pressure. This causes inadequate blood flow to the brain. Generally, the sensation of dizziness may occur prior to fainting, allowing you time to sit down.

Certain medications, including some for high blood pressure, heart problems, and depression can cause fainting. So can drinking a lot of alcohol. In many cases, blood that should be returning to the heart instead pools in the legs while standing or in the stomach after a large meal. That unbalanced blood distribution makes you more likely to faint.

Most people who faint stay "out" a few seconds to less than a minute. If the person is unconscious for more than two or three minutes, call 911.

How to cope

What can you do if you're prone to fainting?

Educate yourself about triggers that can make you faint and ask your doctor what you can do to prevent fainting. For instance, people prone to fainting after a large meal sometimes wear abdominal binders during meals and for a few hours afterward to prevent blood from pooling in the abdomen.

If you have been sitting or lying down for a long period of time, don't get up suddenly.

Doctors sometimes suggest physical therapy and support stockings to keep blood from pooling in the legs, or exercise to improve circulation. Leg movement while standing may help keep blood from pooling in the legs.

Doctors may tell people to 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 you should ask your doctor before increasing your salt intake or taking salt tablets.

Symptoms that can precede fainting are sweaty palms, feeling dizzy or lightheaded, problems seeing, or nausea.

If you feel 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 nauseated.

If you do faint, remain lying down for 10 or 15 minutes once you wake up to improve circulation and promote recovery. Then get up slowly. Also, try moving your legs to increase blood flow.