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Home > Health Library > Dizziness: Lightheadedness and Vertigo
Dizziness is a word that is often used to describe two different feelings. It is important to know exactly what you mean when you say "I feel dizzy," because it can help you and your doctor narrow down the list of possible problems.
Although dizziness can occur in people of any age, it is more common among older adults. A fear of dizziness can cause older adults to limit their physical and social activities. Dizziness can also lead to falls and other injuries.
It is common to feel lightheaded from time to time. Brief episodes of lightheadedness are not usually the result of a serious problem. Lightheadedness often is caused by a momentary drop in blood pressure and blood flow to your head that occurs when you get up too quickly from a seated or lying position (orthostatic hypotension). Ongoing lightheadedness may mean you have a more serious problem that needs to be evaluated.
Lightheadedness has many causes, including:
A more serious cause of lightheadedness is bleeding. Most of the time, the location of the bleeding and the need to seek medical care are obvious. But sometimes bleeding is not obvious (occult bleeding). You may have small amounts of bleeding in your digestive tract over days or weeks without noticing the bleeding. When this happens, lightheadedness and fatigue may be the first noticeable symptoms that you are losing blood. Heavy menstrual bleeding also can cause this type of lightheadedness.
Sometimes the cause of lightheadedness is an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia), which can cause fainting spells (syncope). Unexplained fainting spells need to be evaluated by a doctor. You can check your heart rate by taking your pulse.
Many prescription and nonprescription medicines can cause lightheadedness or vertigo. The degree of lightheadedness or vertigo that a medicine causes will vary.
Vertigo occurs when there is conflict between the signals sent to the brain by various balance- and position-sensing systems of the body. Your brain uses input from four sensory systems to maintain your sense of balance and orientation to your surroundings.
Common causes of vertigo include:
Less common causes of vertigo include:
Immediate medical attention is needed if vertigo occurs suddenly with a change in speech or vision or other loss of function. Vertigo that occurs with loss of function in one area of the body can mean a problem in the brain, such as a stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA).
Alcohol and many prescription and nonprescription medicines can cause lightheadedness or vertigo. These problems may develop from:
Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.
Vertigo is the feeling that you or your surroundings are moving when there is no actual movement. It may feel like spinning, whirling, or tilting. Vertigo may make you sick to your stomach, and you may have trouble standing, walking, or keeping your balance.
Symptoms of a heart attack may include:
For men and women, the most common symptom is chest pain or pressure. But women are somewhat more likely than men to have other symptoms, like shortness of breath, nausea, and back or jaw pain.
Symptoms of serious illness may include:
Heartbeat changes can include:
Neurological symptoms—which may be signs of a problem with the nervous system—can affect many body functions. Symptoms may include:
Many prescription and nonprescription medicines can make you feel lightheaded or affect your balance. A few examples are:
Shock is a life-threatening condition that may quickly occur after a sudden illness or injury.
Adults and older children often have several symptoms of shock. These include:
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
Call 911 or other emergency services now.
After you call 911, the operator may tell you to chew 1 adult-strength (325 mg) or 2 to 4 low-dose (81 mg) aspirin. Wait for an ambulance. Do not try to drive yourself.
Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. Or they might be concerned about the cost. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.
Lightheadedness usually is not a cause for concern unless it is severe, does not go away, or occurs with other symptoms such as an irregular heartbeat or fainting. Lightheadedness can lead to falls and other injuries. Protect yourself from injury if you feel lightheaded:
If you have vertigo:
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:
You may be able to prevent lightheadedness caused by orthostatic hypotension by taking your time.
When you are dizzy, your risk of falling increases. You can make changes in your home to reduce your risk of falls.
For more information about falls, see the topic Preventing Falls.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topicMaking the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:
Before seeing your doctor, it may be helpful to keep track of your symptoms. Use the questions above as a guide for what to include in your diary of symptoms .
Current as of:
October 19, 2020
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineKathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Current as of: October 19, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
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