Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What is dizziness?

Dizziness is the sensation of lightheadedness, or the feeling that you might pass out. Dizziness may be accompanied by nausea and vomiting, perspiration or a cold sweat, imbalance, and fainting. Blood supplies oxygen to the brain. Dizziness occurs when blood is not getting to the brain quickly enough, or if there is a deficit in the amount of oxygen in the blood.

Lightheadedness can be caused by orthostatic hypotension (a drop in blood pressure after you stand); hunger; common illnesses and infections, such as colds; hypoglycemia (low blood sugar); dehydration; heart problems; or feelings of anxiety and panic. More-serious causes of lightheadedness include severe bleeding, heart attack, and abnormal heart rhythms. People with dizziness are at high risk for traumatic fall injuries.

The sensation of things spinning around you, making you feel unsteady or off-balance is known as vertigo, and many people may describe this symptom as dizziness. Vertigo is most commonly caused by a condition known as benign positional vertigo, labyrinthitis (inflammation of the inner ear), Meniere’s disease (inner ear disease that affects balance and hearing), migraines, and decreased blood flow to the cerebellum (the lower portion of the brain that is involved in control of balance).

Feeling lightheaded and dizzy can be signs of a potentially life-threatening condition, such as a heart attack, stroke, or shock (severe drop in blood pressure). Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you experience dizziness accompanied by feelings of pain in your chest, speech problems, confusion or loss of consciousness for even a brief moment, difficulty breathing, severe abdominal pain, severe headache, uncontrolled bleeding, sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body, or changes in vision.

What other symptoms might occur with dizziness?

Dizziness may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder, or condition.

Associated symptoms that may occur along with dizziness

Dizziness may accompany other symptoms including:

  • Disequilibrium
  • Shaking or trembling

Other symptoms that may occur along with dizziness

Dizziness may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

  • Difficulty hearing
  • Headache
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Vision problems

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, dizziness may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Difficulty breathing, talking or swallowing
  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body

What causes dizziness?

Some common causes of dizziness include hunger, fatigue, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), or anxiety. Dizziness can also be caused by neurologic conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy.

Vertigo (the perception of moving or your surroundings moving around you) is associated with disturbances in the vestibular system, which governs balance. Because your ears are associated with this system, ear infections and diseases, such as Meniere’s disease, can affect your sense of balance and gait. Benign positional vertigo affects the inner ear and occurs when you change the position of your head. Labyrinthitis usually follows a cold or flu and is often caused by a viral infection of the inner ear.

Serious causes of dizziness can include heart attack, stroke, or shock, all of which are severe, potentially life-threatening conditions that warrant immediate medical care.

Causes of lightheadedness

Dizziness in the sense of lightheadedness may be caused by the following:

  • Alcohol or drug use or intoxication
  • Allergic reactions
  • Anxiety or panic
  • Decreased levels of breathable oxygen (altitude, carbon monoxide exposure, etc.)
  • Infections or illnesses, such as the cold or flu
  • Medication side effects

Causes of vertigo

Vertigo may be caused by the following:

  • Alcohol or drug use or intoxication
  • Medication side effects
  • Meniere’s disease (inner ear condition affecting balance and hearing)
  • Positional vertigo (dizziness that occurs when shifting the position of the head)

Neurologic causes of dizziness

Dizziness can also be caused by neurologic conditions including:

  • Brain or inner ear tumor
  • Infection of the ear or brain
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease

Serious or life-threatening causes of dizziness

In some cases, dizziness may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Brain hemorrhage
  • Severe bleeding
  • Shock
  • Stroke
  • Transient ischemic attack (temporary stroke-like symptoms that may be a warning sign of an impending stroke)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of dizziness

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed healthcare practitioner will ask you several questions related to your dizziness including:

  • How long have you been experiencing dizziness?
  • Is your dizziness caused by changing positions?
  • Do you have other symptoms in addition to dizziness?
  • Did the dizziness occur with or following an illness?
  • Does the dizziness stop in certain situations? Does anything remedy the dizziness?
  • Have you recently started, changed, substituted, or discontinued any prescription medications?
  • Have you ever fainted or passed out because of your dizziness?
  • Are you stressed or anxious?

Q&A about the causes of dizziness

Common questions people have about the various dizziness causes include:

  • Why am I dizzy after eating? There can be several reasons you feel dizzy after eating. This includes postprandial hypotension (low blood pressure after eating) and reactive hypoglycemia (low blood sugar within four hours of eating). Food sensitivities and alcohol can also cause dizziness after a meal.
  • Why am I dizzy after standing up? If you get dizzy after standing up, it’s most likely orthostatic hypotension. Another name for it is postural hypotension. It happens due to your blood pressure dropping when you stand up from a sitting or lying position.
  • Why do I get dizzy when lying down? If you get dizzy when lying down, it’s most likely related to your vestibular system. Specifically, it could be BPPV (benign paroxysmal positional vertigo).

Only your doctor can tell you for certain what is causing your dizziness. If you have any of these questions, see your doctor for a thorough evaluation.

How is dizziness treated?

Because it is a symptom, dizziness treatment depends on the underlying cause. This may include medications or balance exercises. If you are experiencing persistent or recurrent dizziness, it’s vital to see your doctor to get a diagnosis. Self-treating dizziness without seeing your doctor first may delay the diagnosis of a potentially serious medical condition.

Home remedies for dizziness

Talk with your doctor about lifestyle habits that can help manage your dizziness. Your doctor’s recommendations may include:

  • Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated and avoid overheating.
  • Get an adequate number of hours of sleep each night.
  • Improve safety at home by removing rugs, applying no-slip strips to floors, keeping cords out of the way, and installing grab bars in bathrooms.
  • Sit or lie down if you have an episode of dizziness and avoid standing up or moving suddenly.
  • Use a cane or other assistance device to maintain stability while walking or standing.

If your dizziness is associated with motion or nausea, your doctor may recommend an over-the-counter antihistamine. Examples include dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) and meclizine (Antivert).

What are the potential complications of dizziness?

Because dizziness can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the specific underlying cause for your dizziness is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your healthcare professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Brain damage
  • Heart failure
  • Loss of hearing
  • Loss of vision
  • Spread of infection
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  1. Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV). Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/vertigo/symptoms-causes/syc-20370055
  2. Dizziness. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dizziness/symptoms-causes/syc-20371787
  3. Dizziness. Medline Plus, National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003093.htm
  4. Eating Can Cause Low Blood Pressure. Harvard University. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/eating-can-cause-low-blood-pressure
  5. Balance disorders. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/balance/balance_disorders.html
  6. Kahan S, Miller R, Smith EG (Eds.). In A Page Signs & Symptoms, 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2009
  7. Orthostatic Hypotension (Postural Hypotension). Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/orthostatic-hypotension/symptoms-causes/syc-20352548
  8. Reactive Hypoglycemia: What Can I Do? Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/diabetes/expert-answers/reactive-hypoglycemia/faq-20057778

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 2
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.