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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
  • Fainting or change in level of consciousness or lethargy
  • Shaking or trembling

Other symptoms that may occur along with dizziness

Dizziness may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Cool or clammy skin
  • Difficulty hearing
  • Headache
  • Nasal congestion
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Numbness or weakness of the extremities
  • Profuse sweating
  • 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
  • Convulsions or seizures
  • Difficulty breathing, talking or swallowing
  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Severe headache
  • Sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body
  • Vomiting

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

  • Arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats)

  • Decreased levels of breathable oxygen (altitude, carbon monoxide exposure, etc.)

  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)

  • Infections or illnesses such as the cold or flu

  • Medication side effects

  • Mild dehydration

Causes of vertigo

Vertigo may be caused by the following:

  • Alcohol or drug use or intoxication

  • Labyrinthitis (inner ear infection)

  • 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 hemorrhage

  • Brain or inner ear tumor

  • Infection of the ear or brain

  • Migraine

  • 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

  • Myocardial infarction (heart attack)

  • 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 health care 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 as a result of your dizziness?

  • Are you stressed or anxious?

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 underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Brain damage

  • Heart failure

  • Loss of hearing

  • Loss of vision

  • Paralysis

  • Spread of cancer

  • Spread of infection

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Dec 24
  1. Dizziness. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003093.htm.
  2. Balance disorders. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/balance/balance_disorders.html.
  3. Kahan S, Miller R, Smith EG (Eds.). In A Page Signs & Symptoms, 2d ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2009
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