Fainting or stroke?

Fainting can be mistaken for a serious medical condition, such as a stroke. A stroke is a medical emergency that occurs when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted.

You should dial 999 immediately to request an ambulance if you suspect that you or someone else is having a stroke.

The main symptoms of stroke can be remembered with the word FAST, which stands for Face-Arms-Speech-Time.

  • Face: the face may have fallen on one side, the person may not be able to smile, or their mouth or eye may have drooped.
  • Arms: the person with a suspected stroke may not be able to raise both arms and keep them there due to arm weakness or numbness.
  • Speech: the person may have slurred speech.
  • Time: it is time to dial 999 immediately if you see any of these signs or symptoms.

You should also dial 999 to request an ambulance if someone faints and does not regain consciousness after a minute or two.

Fainting is a sudden, temporary loss of consciousness that usually results in a fall.

Healthcare professionals often use the term ‘syncope’ when referring to fainting because it distinguishes fainting from other causes of temporary unconsciousness, such as seizures (fits) or concussion. 

In most cases of fainting, the person who has fainted regains consciousness within a minute or two.

But less common types of fainting can be medical emergencies. You should call 999 and request an ambulance if a person who has fainted does not regain consciousness within two minutes.

Why fainting happens

To function properly, the brain relies on oxygen that is carried in the blood. Fainting can occur when the blood flow to the brain is reduced.

Reduced blood flow to the brain is usually quickly corrected, but it can cause people to feel odd, sweaty and dizzy. If it lasts long enough, they may fall down. This is called a faint. See symptoms of fainting for more information.

The reason for the reduced blood supply to the brain that causes fainting can vary. Usually, the cause is related to a temporary malfunction in the autonomic nervous system, which regulates many of the body's automatic functions, including heartbeat and maintenance of blood pressure. This kind of fainting is called neurally mediated syncope.

This kind of fainting can be triggered by emotional stress, pain, prolonged standing, and other experiences or circumstances. It can also be caused by physical processes such as coughing, sneezing, or laughing.

See causes of fainting for more information.

What you should do

If you know or suspect that you are going to faint, you should lie down, preferably in a position where your head is low and your legs are raised. This will encourage blood flow to the brain.

If it is not possible to lie down, sit down with your head between your knees.

If you suspect someone else is about to faint, you should help them to lie down or sit down in this way.

If a person faints and does not regain consciousness within one or two minutes, you should put them into the recovery position. To do this, you should:

  • place the person on their side so they are supported by one leg and one arm
  • open their airway by tilting their head back and lifting their chin
  • monitor their breathing and pulse continuously

You should then dial 999 to request an ambulance and stay with the person until medical help arrives.

Treatment of fainting

In many cases of fainting you will return to normal within a few minutes, and no further treatment is needed.

In cases of repeated fainting and some other cases, is important that a healthcare professional investigates the cause of the fainting episode. See diagnosis of fainting for more information.

Treatment for fainting will depend on the kind of fainting you are experiencing.

In many cases of neurally mediated syncope, no further treatment is needed.

If you have had a fainting episode, advice to deal with possible future episodes includes:

  • avoiding the triggers for your fainting, such as hot and crowded environments, or emotional stress
  • being prepared to spot the warning signs of fainting, such as feeling lightheaded, and lying down to increase blood flow to the brain

See treatment of fainting for more information.

Who is affected?

Fainting is very common. Around 50% of women will faint during their lives, and around 25% of men.

In 2008 to 2009, nearly 120,000 people in England were admitted to hospital for fainting. Almost half of these were 75 years of age or over.

Around a third of people who have fainted will faint again within three years. In general, the more someone faints, the more likely they are to faint again. 

Page last reviewed: 07/08/2012

Next review due: 07/08/2014


How helpful is this page?

Average rating

Based on 227 ratings

All ratings

Add your rating


The 1 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Januka Rai said on 31 May 2011

once when i started to skip food as i was on diet, i fainted one time in the morning at 3 or 4 am and i was unconsious, didnt know anything what was going around. I saw everything black and feel very dizzy so i got fainted. It was really horrible and i fell down on the flood but my grandad picked me up and woke me up thank god. But i culdnt open my eyes so he took me to bed and i slept. So, we must always eat healthy food to keep our flow of blood and oxygen to all parts of our body and brain. Thank you

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Emergency services

Read about A&E departments and other emergency services available in the NHS, such as minor injury units or emergency contraception