If you can’t catch them when they fall, knowing these few things can help someone who has fainted

Proactive Health

The pH health care professional team

Fainting isn’t that uncommon. You have probably fainted yourself or witnessed a friend, relative or public figure faint. Hillary Clinton collapsed when she had pneumonia after visiting the 9/11 memorial in New York, and Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton recently collapsed while giving his annual State of the State Address in St. Paul.

What exactly is fainting?

Fainting is a temporary loss of consciousness with an inability to maintain a standing or upright position, followed by a spontaneous recovery.

How common is fainting?

Fainting contributes to 1-3 percent of all emergency room visits and up to 6 percent of all hospital admissions a year.

What causes fainting?

Many episodes of fainting occur as a reflex reaction when someone is taken by surprise, or when they’re already weakened due to low blood sugar, fasting, extreme heat, exercise, dehydration, the flu or a pre-existing heart, neurological and other condition.

Heart conditions, irregular heartbeat, clots in the lung and mini strokes can cause fainting. That’s because an irregular heartbeat or heart disease can impair blood volume output and cause less blood, and therefore less oxygen, to reach the brain. Fainting can also happen when blood pools in the legs after prolonged standing. This is exacerbated in people with anemia. People who have significant blood loss are also at an increased risk for fainting.

As you can see, there may be a number of reasons why people faint. The medical term for fainting is syncope. It essentially occurs when the brain experiences a period of low oxygen. Typically, people who faint recover quickly, within a few seconds or a minute, especially when lying down.

It is important to differentiate fainting from other causes of loss of consciousness. Prolonged loss of consciousness is not fainting. Extended loss of consciousness, which persists for hours, days, months or longer is a coma.

What does a typical fainting episode look like?

You may feel dizzy, weak and/or nauseated, and you may break out in sweats.You also may have vertigo, upper abdomen discomfort and/or difficulty balancing just before the fainting occurs. Others may faint as a spontaneous reaction to a stressful event or unexpected emotional situation.

Cardiac arrhythmias can strike without any warning and can cause you to faint. When fainting is accompanied by either chest pain, shortness of breath, palpitations, severe headaches, neurological problems, slurred speech or double vision, immediate medical attention is absolutely necessary.

How do you know if fainting is more serious?

The majority of the time when someone faints for the first time, it is harmless. Nonetheless, it is essential he or she is checked by a doctor to rule out more serious illnesses. Generally, fainting in younger people tends to be less complicated than fainting in older people or those who have a pre-existing illness such as diabetes or heart disease.

What happens if you faint and end up in the ER?

Medical professionals will pay great attention to the surrounding elements as well as the person’s medical history and medication to get an idea about the significance of the fainting episode. Quick full recovery is usually a good sign. Low glucose due to fasting and vasovagal reactions, common among young and middle-aged people, are generally relatively harmless. However, it is best to identify the causes and rule out more serious issues, such as underlying heart disease, seizures, tumors or mini-strokes.

Special attention has to be given to first-time seizures in elderly people because it can stem from dangerous heart arrhythmias or other heart, circulation or brain diseases. The patient may be discharged from the ER or admitted to the hospital for further testing and monitoring.

Patients will likely get screening lab work and an electrocardiogram. If the patient fell and suffered an injury such as a head trauma, broken bones or cuts, those injuries would also be addressed. Depending on the doctor’s recommendation, specific organ testing may be done, such as a CT scan of the head, chest or abdomen. A ventilation perfusion scan can help to identify pulmonary embolism.

Why you have fainted -- questions to ask:

  • What happened just before the fainting occurred?
  • What was unusual about the preceding situation?
  • Was there a complete loss of consciousness, and how long did it take?
  • Was there anyone who witnessed the event?
  • Has a similar episode occurred in the past?
  • Are there any existing conditions that may have caused the event?
  • Was there spontaneous and complete recovery from the event?

What to do if someone faints:

  • Get the person to lie down flat. Place the person on their back, unless he or she is vomiting. In this situation, place the person on their side to avoid aspiration. Lying down helps improve blood circulation to the brain and shorten recovery.
  • Clear airways. Make sure the person can breathe freely. If something obstructs the airways, try to help clear.
  • Check for signs of circulation. Check pulse, breathing and movements.
  • If anything appears to be abnormal, call 911 immediately. If the person recovers quickly, give him or her orange juice or a sugary drink -- this helps someone with low blood sugar. Even with full recovery, the person should consult with a health care professional to clarify further need for assessment.

Be proactive

Fainting is often harmless, but it can be a sign of a more serious or even life-threatening disease. You can take preventive steps and go in for  regular checkups to reduce your chances of fainting. If you have already experienced episodes of “near” fainting, it is highly advisable that you see your health care provider for a checkup sooner rather than later!

More resources

If you have fainted during a blood draw, read about ways to prevent it for the next time here!

Did you know low iron levels can cause fainting? Learn more about the signs of a mineral deficiencies here.

Enjoy Your Healthy Life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, health care attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. To learn more about the pH Health Care Team, click here.

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