It sounds like melodrama: People hear bad news or see blood, and the
next thing you know they've fainted.
But it's reality for many Americans. They're prone to fainting (called
"syncope" by doctors). Fainting is a loss of consciousness, falling down
or needing to lie down, followed by spontaneous recovery. Fainting by
itself is not a problem, but it could be a sign of a serious health
condition. It is usually caused by a sudden decrease in blood flow to
the brain. Stress, standing too long and other fairly simple causes can
It is more common in the elderly. In the young, the problem usually has
no serious cause. Triggers include:
Hearing bad news
Standing a long time
The sight of blood
Seeing a rodent or spider
Being in a crowd
Speaking to a group
Stimulants, such as caffeine
An older person who begins to experience episodes of fainting should
call their doctor. It is important to have the cause of the fainting
Serious causes include:
Abnormal heartbeat or other heart problems
Circulatory problems that limit blood flow to the brain
Brain or nervous system disturbances
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
Certain medications, including some for high blood pressure, heart
problems and depression, can cause fainting. So can 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.
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
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 drink 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.
Place your head between your knees, if you can't lie down, 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. Also, try moving your
legs to increase blood flow.
For more information, call 1.866.CALL.MLH.