Understanding Fainting Spells

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Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More

Nearly everyone has experienced the sensation of feeling lightheaded when...

Nearly everyone has experienced the sensation of feeling lightheaded when standing up quickly. It feels as though you might faint for a few seconds and in some cases, people do lose consciousness for brief periods of time.

But most fainting spells, also called syncope, (pronounced Sin-koe-pee), are not serious and may be caused by many factors such as stress, grief, overheating, dehydration, exhaustion or illness. About one-third of all people will have at least one fainting spell during their lifetime.


The Facts About Fainting

The most common reason for fainting is a sudden drop in blood pressure. This typically occurs because the heart cannot pump an adequate amount of blood fast enough to the brain when the body demands it. The lack of blood circulation, and the oxygen it carries to the brain, is what causes the dizziness and possible loss of consciousness. Fainting can happen to anyone but is especially common among older people.

It can also occur when you:

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  • Stand up quickly from a sitting or lying position.
  • Work or play hard, especially if it’s hot.
  • Breathe too fast (also known as hyperventilating).
  • Get very upset. Being upset can affect the nerves that control your blood pressure.
  • Take medicine for high blood pressure.

Sometimes you can avoid fainting by heeding the early warning signs, which include:

  • Pale skin appearance
  • Feeling of warmth
  • Weakness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea
  • Yawning
  • Sweating
  • Rapid breathing
  • Blurred vision

Getting to the Root of Fainting

If you have a tendency to faint, it is important that you try to determine the cause(s). This will enable you to prevent fainting by avoiding the situations that may trigger a fainting spell.

For example, if you determine that you are prone to low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) you should always carry a fast-acting carbohydrate with you like as a juice box or a bag of raisins. If you tend to respond strongly to certain stressful situations, you may need to learn to practice systematic, deliberate breathing as a way to manage your stress response and avoid hyperventilating.

Some people may also have health issues that may bring about fainting, such as a heart condition. Older adults may experience a higher risk of fainting due to medications they are taking or because they are dehydrated. You will likely have to do some of your own investigative work to determine what prompts you to feel faint. You should also be sure to discuss any ongoing fainting spells with your doctor.

If you’re prone to fainting, try these tips:

  • Identify and avoid triggers that may contribute to fainting, such as excessive stress, rigorous exercise or becoming overheated.
  • Drink plenty of water and don’t skip meals. Dehydration and not eating can lower blood pressure and intensify blood pressure changes due to changes in position.
  • Rise slowly from a lying or sitting position to allow your body time to adjust.
  • If you feel faint, lie down and elevate your legs above your heart or sit with your head between your knees until you feel well enough to move. This will also aid the blood flow to your brain.

How to Help Someone Who Faints

Knowing how to assist a person who faints can help prevent injury and even save a life.

  1. Position the person on his or her back, with their legs elevated above heart level.
  2. Watch the airway carefully to ensure there is nothing blocking the flow of air. People who lose consciousness may vomit.
  3. Position your ear over the person’s mouth to listen for breathing sounds. If breathing has stopped, the problem is more serious than a fainting spell. Start cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and emergency medical care immediately.
  4. If the person is breathing, loosen their belts, collars or other constrictive clothing and keep their legs elevated above the heart to increase blood flow to the brain. The person should revive quickly. If the person doesn’t regain consciousness in within two minutes, call for emergency medical assistance.
  5. If the person has slurred speech or difficulty moving an arm or leg after they regain consciousness, get immediate medical help as these signs may indicate a stroke.
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