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Should you worry if you have a fainting spell?

Drinking lots of liquids helps prevent fainting and is especially important in warm weather.

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A fainting spell can be inconsequential, or it can signal a serious health issue. It’s important to learn why you faint.

Fainting can be scary, but it’s also quite common. Half of women who have reached the age of 80 have fainted at least once. Fainting itself isn’t usually serious; people who faint usually come to within a minute. However, it may signal an underlying health problem, and it puts you at risk for serious injuries from falling as you pass out.

“Fainting may not be a big deal if you’re young and you faint at the sight of blood. But if you’re older and haven’t fainted before, it warrants a call to your doctor,” says Dr. Christopher Gibbons, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

Doctors call fainting syncope (pronounced SIN-ko-pee). It’s defined as a brief period of unconsciousness resulting from a loss of blood flow to the brain. Several things can be responsible for impeding blood flow, and those causes vary with your age and state of health.

Vasovagal syncope

What it is. The term refers to the effects of the vagus nerve—which controls the heart and digestive system—on the blood vessels. In vasovagal syncope, an extreme emotional response to a situation like getting bad news or seeing blood causes your blood pressure to drop quickly. You may break into a cold sweat, feel nauseated, and sense your vision dim right before you pass out. However, you should also recover quickly; most episodes last less than a minute.

What causes it. Although vasovagal syncope is usually brought on by emotional stress, it may also occur when you’re standing for long periods or straining to have a bowel movement.

Who is at risk. Vasovagal syncope is most common in people under 35, although older people may faint while urinating or having a bowel movement. “As we age, our nervous systems don’t react as rapidly, so we aren’t as likely to respond as intensely to the same triggers,” Dr. Gibbons explains.

What you can do. If you begin to feel faint, squatting or crossing your legs and tensing your calf muscles may help keep enough blood in your upper body to keep you from passing out. If you can, lie down and raise your legs.

Orthostatic or postural hypotension

What it is. Orthostatic hypotension is literally “low blood pressure when standing upright.” If your blood pressure plummets when you stand, your blood vessels expand, allowing blood to pool in your legs and feet instead of circulating to your brain. You will probably feel light-headed or dizzy, and your vision might be blurred.

What causes it. Many medications, especially blood pressure drugs, can cause your blood pressure to fall. Diuretics, which lower blood pressure by reducing the amount of fluid in the blood, are often responsible. Orthostatic hypotension can also result from an underlying medical condition like Parkinson’s disease.

Who is at risk. The risk of orthostatic hypotension begins to rise after age 50 and increases throughout the rest of life. Taking blood pressure medications and becoming dehydrated also increase risk.

What you can do. Rising slowly—for example, sitting on the edge of the bed before you stand up—gives your body a chance to adjust blood pressure. Drinking lots of liquids also helps and is especially important in warm weather. You may need to remind yourself to drink a glass of water occasionally, because thirst declines with age.

Fainting with palpitations

What it is. A drop in blood pressure due to irregular heartbeats can cause you to lose consciousness. There may be no warning signs, or you may have tightness in your chest, shortness of breath, or a sense that your heart is fluttering, racing, skipping beats, or pounding.

What causes it. A number of heart conditions—from problems with the heart’s electrical system to defective valves—can cause palpitations serious enough to trigger fainting.

Who is at risk. The risk is highest in people over 60, especially those who have a history of heart disease.

What you can do. Get medical attention at once. Fainting with palpitations is an emergency.

When to see your doctor

Although fainting is relatively common in young people, if you faint for the first time after age 40, it’s a good idea to call your doctor, who will want to explore all the potential causes. Your doctor may check your blood pressure, go over your medications, and change your prescriptions, if necessary. If your doctor finds evidence of a heart rhythm disturbance, you’ll probably be referred to a cardiologist for further testing and treatment.

Posted by: Dr.Health

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