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Dizziness: Symptom

Medically reviewed on Sep 6, 2018

Definition

Dizziness can range from fleeting faintness to a severe balance disorder that makes normal functioning impossible. Among adults over age 65, up to 30 percent experience dizziness.

Dizziness may feel like:

  • Lightheadedness, as though you might pass out
  • Unsteadiness or a loss of balance
  • A false sense that you or your surroundings are spinning or moving (vertigo)
  • Floating, swimming or heavy-headedness

Dizziness is often temporary and goes away without treatment. As you talk with your doctor about your condition, try to describe your specific symptoms, how the dizziness makes you feel as it is coming on and after it has passed, what triggers it, and how long it lasts. This will help your doctor diagnose the cause and treat it.

Causes

The causes of dizziness are as varied as its symptoms. It can result from something as simple as motion sickness — the queasy feeling that you get on hairpin roads and roller coasters. Or it can be caused by an inner ear disturbance, infection, reduced blood flow due to blocked arteries or heart disease, medication side effects, anxiety, or another condition. Sometimes a cause can't be identified.

Dizziness, particularly vertigo, occurring by itself, without any other symptoms, is generally unlikely to be a sign of a stroke.

Some causes of dizziness include:

Inner ear problems

Many cases of dizziness are caused by problems that affect the balance mechanism in your inner ear. Examples include:

  • Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV)
  • Ear infection (middle ear)
  • Meniere's disease
  • Migraine

Reduced blood flow

Dizziness can be caused if your brain doesn't receive enough blood. This can occur for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Arteriosclerosis / atherosclerosis
  • Anemia
  • Dehydration
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Heart arrhythmias (heart rhythm problems)
  • Orthostatic hypotension (postural hypotension)
  • Stroke
  • Transient ischemic attack (TIA)

Certain medications

Some types of drugs cause dizziness, including some varieties of:

  • Antidepressants
  • Anti-seizure drugs
  • Drugs to control high blood pressure
  • Sedatives
  • Tranquilizers

Other causes of dizziness

  • Concussion
  • Depression (major depressive disorder)
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Motion sickness: First aid
  • Panic attacks and panic disorder

When to see a doctor

Generally, see your doctor if you experience any recurrent, sudden, severe, or prolonged and unexplained dizziness or vertigo.

Get emergency medical care if you experience new, severe dizziness or vertigo along with any of the following:

  • Sudden, severe headache
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Numbness or paralysis of arms or legs
  • Fainting
  • Double vision
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Confusion or slurred speech
  • Stumbling or difficulty walking
  • Ongoing vomiting
  • Seizures
  • A sudden change in hearing
  • Facial numbness or weakness

In the meantime, these self-care tips may help:

  • Move slowly. When you stand up from lying down, move slowly. Many people experience dizziness if they stand up too quickly.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. Staying well-hydrated can help prevent or relieve several types of dizziness.
  • Avoid caffeine and tobacco. By restricting blood flow, these substances can make symptoms worse.

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