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(Syncope)

Definition

Fainting is a loss of consciousness that happens quickly and sometimes without warning. A person is usually alert again in a short amount of time.

Causes

Fainting happens when there is a decrease in blood flow to the brain. There are many health problems that can cause fainting.

Some things that can trigger fainting are:

  • Extreme heat
  • Dehydration
  • Long periods of standing
  • Stress, trauma, or fright
Blood Flow to the Brain
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These health problems may also cause fainting:

Risk Factors

Things that may increase the risk of fainting are:

  • Taking medicine that lowers blood pressure
  • Alcohol use
  • Blood loss
  • Fluid loss, such as from diarrhea or vomiting
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Lung disease
  • Environmental factors, such as extreme heat

Symptoms

Fainting is a sudden loss of consciousness that resolves in a short amount of time. Before this happens, a person may feel:

  • Lightheaded
  • Weak
  • Nauseated
  • Sweaty

When Should I Call My Doctor?

Call your doctor if you are having periods of fainting. This is important if you:

  • Have a heart condition
  • Have a job where you or others may be at risk if you faint, such as an airline pilot, bus driver, or machinist

When Should I Call for Medical Help Right Away?

Call for emergency medical services right away if you have:

  • Weakness or numbness of the face, arm, or leg, especially on the left side of the body
  • Confusion
  • Loss of balance
  • Movement problems
  • Vision problems
  • Severe headache
  • Rapid, irregular heartbeat; chest pain

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. You will also be asked what you were doing when this symptom happened. A physical exam will be done. This is often enough to make the diagnosis. More tests may need to be done. The tests that are done depend on what the doctor believes may be the cause.

Treatment

If there is an underlying cause, it will need to be treated. Treatment may not be needed for a person who only fainted once.

Prevention

Some underlying health problems cause people to faint. They will need to be treated.

People who feel as though they may faint can lower the risk with movements that promote blood flow to the brain, such as:

  • Crossing your legs while tensing the muscles of legs, belly, and buttocks.
  • Squeezing a rubber ball or other object as hard as possible.
  • Gripping one hand with the other while tensing both arms and raising the elbows slightly.

RESOURCES

American Heart Association  http://www.heart.org 

Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians  http://familydoctor.org 

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Alberta Health  http://www.health.alberta.ca 

Health Canada  https://www.canada.ca 

References

Brignole M, Moya A, et al. 2018 ESC Guidelines for the diagnosis and management of syncope. Eur Heart J. 2018 Jun 1;39(21):1883-1948.

Choosing wisely. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:  https://www.dynamed.com/quality-improvement/choosing-wisely  . Updated June 24, 2019. Accessed April 9, 2020.

Fainting. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/fainting.html. Updated December 6, 2017. Accessed April 9, 2020.

Syncope—approach to the patient. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:  https://www.dynamed.com/approach-to/syncope-approach-to-the-patient  . Updated July 9, 2019. Accessed April 9, 2020.

3/24/2015 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Mills PB, Fung CK, et al. Nonpharmacologic management of orthostatic hypotension: A systematic review. Arch Phys Med Rehab. 2015;96(20:366-375.

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board Rimas Lukas, MD
  • Review Date: 02/2020
  • Update Date: 04/09/2020