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Fainting: causes, symptoms and when to consult a doctor

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Dr. Kevin Campbell discusses fainting on WNCN Today, including what causes it, what symptoms to look for and when to consult your doctor about it.

Fainting, also called syncope, is a sudden, brief loss of consciousness and posture caused by decreased blood flow to the brain.

Fainting is a common problem, accounting for 3 percent of emergency room visits and 6 percent of hospital admissions. A person may feel faint and light-headed (presyncope) or lose consciousness.

Understanding Fainting

So what causes us to faint? Many different conditions can cause a person to faint. These include heart problems such as an irregular heartbeat, seizures, panic or anxiety attacks, low blood sugar, anemia and problems with the nervous system.

The most common type of fainting spell in children and young adults is called a vasovagal attack or neurally-mediated syncope. A vasovagal attack happens because blood pressure drops, reducing circulation to the brain and causing a loss of consciousness. Typically an attack occurs while standing and is frequently preceded by a sensation of warmth, nausea, lightheadedness and visual "gray out." If the syncope is prolonged, it can trigger a seizure.

While fainting may indicate a particular medical condition, sometimes it may occur in otherwise healthy individuals. Fainting is a particular problem for the elderly, who may suffer serious injuries from falls when they faint. In most cases, the individual who has fainted regains complete consciousness within just a few minutes.

Symptoms:

  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Sweating
  • Blurred vision, seeing spots
  • Headache
  • Sensation that the room is moving
  • Ringing in the ears (see tinnitus)
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Paleness
  • Tingling or numbing of fingertips and around lips
  • Bluish cast to the skin
  • Shortness of breath

 

Call your doctor if:

You have an unexplained fainting episode. Especially if the episode occurs during exercise, happens during heart palpitations (feeling the heart beat irregularly) or if you have a family history of recurrent fainting or sudden death.

Tests & Treatments

A heart evaluation usually starts with an electrocardiogram (ECG), which measures the electrical activity of your heart to look for heart arrhythmias. Other tests, such as an exercise stress test, Holter monitor, or echocardiogram may be needed to rule out other cardiac causes of fainting.

If you suffer from episodes of fainting, the type of treatment your doctor offers will depend on the cause of your fainting spells and how often you experience them. Infrequent non-heart-related fainting may not need to be treated. You may be given certain medications to manage the underlying problem, or if you have an irregular heartbeat you may need specific medicines or other treatments.

 

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