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Home > Wellness > 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
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.
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
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
transient ischemic attack (TIA).
Alcohol and many prescription and nonprescription
medicines can cause lightheadedness or vertigo. These problems may develop
Check your symptoms to decide if and when you
should see a doctor.
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The
problem probably will not get better without medical care.
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
Heartbeat changes can include:
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be
able to take care of this problem at home.
Based on your answers, you need
Call911or 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.
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.
Shock is a life-threatening condition that may quickly occur
after a sudden illness or injury.
Symptoms of shock (most of which will be present) include:
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical
Based on your answers, you need
Many prescription and nonprescription medicines can make you
feel lightheaded or affect your balance. A few examples are:
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind
of care you may need. These include:
Symptoms of a heart attack may
The more of these symptoms you have, the more likely it is that
you're having a heart attack. Chest pain or pressure is the most common
symptom, but some people, especially women, may not notice it as much as other
symptoms. You may not have chest pain at all but instead have shortness of breath, nausea, numbness,
tingling, or a strange feeling in your chest or other areas.
Neurological symptoms—which may be
signs of a problem with the nervous system—can affect many body functions.
Symptoms may include:
Symptoms of serious illness may
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
You may be able to prevent lightheadedness
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 topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your
doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the
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 symptomsdiary of symptoms(What is a PDF document?).
January 2, 2013
William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine & David Messenger, MD
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.
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