Fainting in children

Specialty of Paediatric cardiology

What is fainting?

Fainting is a temporary loss of conciousness which can come on suddenly, often resulting in a fall. The medical term for fainting is syncope (pronounced sin-co-pee). Fainting is relatively common and is usually harmless. However, in some instances it can be an indication of a serious problem, such as a heart problem, or a neurological condition.

What is the cause of fainting in children?

The general reason behind why people faint is a temporary drop in blood pressure. This can happen for numerous reasons, including dehydration, going without food for a long period, standing for long periods of time, or simply being unwell. Fainting may occur as the result of passing a bowel movement, urination, breath holding, or even coughing. Children can also faint if they are frightened or as a reaction to severe pain.

However, fainting can also be caused by conditions such as:

What are the symptoms?

Before fainting, sometimes symptoms will present. These can include feeling dizzy or lightheaded, nausea, some changes in vision, and cold or clammy skin. If these symptoms present, it may be enough for you to notice your child should sit down or lie down before fainting happens.

If your child faints, follow these steps to ensure their safety:

  • Check that they are breathing
  • Keep them lying down, or sitting with their head between their knees
  • Loosen their clothing if it is tight, particularly around the neck

If your child faints, you should make an appointment with their doctor to tell them what happened.

You should also take your child to the GP or visit a specialist if your child again experiences fainting, even after preventive measures have been taken, if there is no clear cause, or there is a family history of fainting. You may be referred to a specialist depending on the cause of fainting: you may need to see a paediatric cardiologist if your child faints during sport, for example.

Call 999 right away if your child is not breathing, they do not become alert almost immediately, or if you note a change in their vision, movements, or speech after fainting.

Are there any tests for fainting?

Your child may be referred to a paediatric cardiologist if they experience regular or sporadic fainting (i.e it is not a one-off occasion). This cardiologist can check for some of the more serious heart problems which can cause syncope. They will ask about your child’s medical history, family medical history, and ask you to explain what happens when your child faints.

They may order tests such as an ECG (electrocardiogram) to check the heart’s electrical activity, a Holter monitor (where the heart’s electrical activity is monitored over a 24-48 hour period), or a stress test (allowing the doctor to see how your child’s heart responds when under more stress, e.g during exercise).

How is it treated?

If fainting does not frequently occur, avoiding the circumstances that can lead to syncope or taking certain steps before losing consciousness can prevent fainting, such as keeping hydrated, avoiding stuffy closed-off rooms with little air, and not standing for long periods of time.

However, if fainting occurs because of an underlying condition, the condition itself must be treated or monitored in order to prevent or treat syncope.  

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