Medically reviewed on January 11, 2018
Dizziness can range from fleeting faintness to a severe balance disorder that makes normal functioning impossible. Among adults over 60, about 20 percent have had a dizziness episode that affected their usual activities.
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.
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
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
- Heart arrhythmias (heart rhythm problems)
- Orthostatic hypotension (postural hypotension)
- Transient ischemic attack (TIA)
Some types of drugs cause dizziness, including some varieties of:
- Anti-seizure drugs
- Drugs to control high blood pressure
Other causes of dizziness
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Motion sickness: First aid
- Panic attacks and panic disorder
When to see a doctor
Call 911 or emergency medical assistance
Dizziness can be a symptom of a serious medical problem, such as a heart attack or a stroke. Call 911 or have someone drive you to the emergency department if your dizziness is associated with:
- A new, different or severe headache
- Falling or trouble walking
- Chest pain or an irregular heart rate
- Shortness of breath
- Facial weakness or numbness
- A sudden change in speech, vision or hearing
- A head injury
- A high fever
- A very stiff neck
- Ongoing vomiting
- Leg or arm weakness
- Loss of consciousness
Schedule a doctor's visit
Call your doctor if your dizziness is recurrent, sudden and severe, or long lasting.
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.