Fatal Error: What It Is and How to Fix It

Take these steps when a fatal exception error closes your program

A man looks at a fatal error on his laptop.

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A fatal error is a type of error that causes a computer program to close, or the entire operating system to suddenly shut down. This type of error is commonly associated with the infamous blue screen of death in Windows, but less severe fatal exception errors only cause a single program to close.

In some cases, fatal errors are spontaneous and temporary, and you can safely continue using your computer without any additional problems. If fatal errors persist, and especially if they reoccur when using the same program or performing the same task, you could have a problem with either the hardware or software in your computer.

How Fatal Errors Appear

Fatal error messages typically appear when a program suddenly shuts down due to some type of failure, or when a Windows computer suddenly displays the blue screen of death before shutting down.

When a fatal error occurs, you'll usually see a message like one of these:

FATAL ERROR: Unhandled xxx Exception at xxx
A fatal exception xx has occurred at xxxx:xxxxxxxx
Fatal error detected, unable to continue. Terminating due to uncaught exception.

When you experience a fatal error message, whether or not it looks exactly like these examples, it's important to write down what you see. The specific type of error, and the series of numbers and letters that's often included, can help you track down the problem.

If you're experiencing a blue screen of death, which is when your Windows computer suddenly shuts down accompanied by a blue screen, check out our guide to diagnosing and fixing a blue screen of death.

What Causes a Fatal Error?

When you run a program on an operating system like Windows, and the program encounters something unexpected, it generates something called an exception. These exceptions allow programs to run smoothly and operate normally, even when something unexpected happens.

When a program is given, or generates, an unknown or unexpected exception, the result is a fatal error. This same type of problem can also be referred to as a fatal exception, or a fatal exception error.

Depending on the severity of the error, you may be given the option to continue running the program, or the program may terminate automatically.

How to Fix a Fatal Error

Fatal errors can be caused by a variety of unexpected interactions between different programs, between programs and drivers, between programs and hardware, and even physical faults or defects in hardware.

Follow these fixes to get to the bottom of your fatal error.

  1. Search for your error code to find specific instructions. Some fatal errors are fairly basic, but most of these error messages provide a code that can help you find specific information about your problem. If your error looks like this:

    A fatal exception 0E has occurred at xxxx:xxxxxxxx

    The 0E is a code that might help point you in the right direction. Try running a search for your specific fatal exception error code, and see if you can find specific instructions.

    The other code, which usually follows the format of two sets of numbers separated by a colon, may also help. This code is less likely to yield results, but it's still worth a quick search before you move on.

  2. Update your software. The developers may have released a patch designed to fix your exact problem. Most programs and apps either download and install updates automatically, provide you with an option to manually download and install updates, or you have to visit the developer's website and download the update.

    If you can't figure out how to update your software, check out our list of free software updater programs. These programs are designed to help you keep all of your programs up to date.

  3. Update your drivers. Unexpected interactions involving drivers can cause fatal errors, and other problems, so it's always a good idea to keep your drivers up to date.

    If you find that your drivers are already up to date, you can also try rolling back drivers to earlier versions. There's a chance your old drivers were fine, but an automatic update introduced the fatal error. Check to see if any drivers were updated immediately before your problems started, and roll those back first.

  4. Uninstall any recently installed programs. There may be an unforeseen conflict between the programs, or something could have been corrupted during the installation process. After uninstalling your recently installed programs, check to see if the fatal exception error still happens. If it doesn't, try reinstalling the programs. If the problem comes back, consider submitting a bug report to the developer.

  5. Restore Windows to an earlier state. If you have any system restore points available from before your fatal errors started to appear, try restoring Windows to one of those points. This will effectively roll back any changes made during that time span, which will fix your fatal error problem if it isn't related to a hardware issue.

  6. Disable any background programs that are currently running. You don't see these programs on your taskbar, but you can open the task manager to shut them down manually. In most cases, background programs can be left alone, but there are cases where one of these programs may conflict with a different program in an unexpected way, causing a fatal error.

    Don't shut down programs you're unfamiliar with. You can safely shut down any program you originally opened yourself, but doing so with random apps and background processes can make your system unstable and cause your computer to crash.

  7. Delete your temporary files. Temporary files are typically generated when programs are running, and they can be left behind when a program closes down. If corrupt temporary files are the cause of your fatal exception errors, then removing them will fix the problem.

  8. Free up space on your hard drive. Check how much space is on your hard drive, and delete old files if your drive is full. We recommend you leave about 10 percent of your total storage space free for smooth operation.

  9. Run chkdsk and defrag your hard drive. If your fatal errors are caused by a problem with your hard drive, then running chkdsk can identify the issue and either fix it or at least let you know what's going on. Defragging can also help fix these issues.

    Don't run defrag on a solid state drive (SSD). If you're unsure whether or not you have an SSD, err on the side of caution and don't defrag until you have consulted with an expert.

  10. Rule out heat issues. If your computer is overheating, you can end up seeing a lot of fatal errors in addition to a variety of other symptoms.

    Check to make sure the fans are working and not clogged with dust or debris. If you're comfortable taking your computer apart, you can also check the internal fans and the heat sink. Carefully use canned air or a vacuum to remove any dust or debris that are preventing your fans or heat sink from functioning efficiently.

    If you use canned air, hold the can upright to avoid spraying liquid inside your computer. Be careful to never touch the components inside your computer if you aren't wearing a properly set up ground strap. If you aren't comfortable poking around inside your computer or laptop, you may need to seek professional assistance.

  11. Test your random access memory (RAM) for problems. Memory errors can cause fatal errors, although you may see a memory exception or an out of memory exception error instead. To rule this out, you can run a memory test application. If you learn that your RAM is faulty, replace the defective component or components.

  12. Check the rest of your hardware. If you're experiencing recurring fatal errors, and everything has checked out so far, you might have a hidden problem with some of the hardware in your computer. In some cases, replacing components like your hard drive or motherboard can fix fatal errors.

This level of diagnostics is complicated, so you may have to seek professional assistance. Replacing components blindly, in the hopes that it will fix a problem like this, can be very expensive.