Dizziness is common, but it can be hard to describe. Dizziness is often used to describe a vague sensation of feeling off-balance or of movement. Dizziness can also be described as lightheaded, spaced out, unsteady, or faint.
Dizziness can be often be narrowed down by describing what you feel when it happens. Types of dizziness include:
- Vertigo—A sensation of spinning or whirling when you are standing still.
- Disequilibrium—A loss of balance or unsteadiness.
- Lightheadedness—A sensation of your head swimming or floating.
- Presyncope—A feeling of lightheadedness just before fainting. Not everyone who faints may have this feeling, but many do.
Dizziness may be the result of an underlying health condition, medications, or unknown cause. The specific type of dizziness and/or any other symptoms may help determine the cause.
Vertigo may be caused by:
- Inner ear problems (structural or infectious, such as Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo or Meniere disease)
- Vision problems
- Cerebrovascular problems, such as a stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA)
- Some neurologic problems such as Parkinson disease
- Brain disorders, such as a tumor
- Migraine headaches
- Heavy metal poisoning
Disequilibrium may be caused by:
- Infections, such as a cold or the flu
- Cardiovascular disorders, such as heart failure or high blood pressure
- Endocrine disorders, such as diabetes or thyroid problems
- Cerebrovascular problems, such as a stroke or TIA
Lightheadedness may be caused by:
- Inner ear problems
- Low blood pressure
- Exposure to something upsetting, such as seeing blood
- Psychological disorders, such as depression or anxiety
- Suddenly standing up after sitting for a long period of time
Presyncope may be caused by:
- Low blood pressure
- Cardiovascular problems, such as heart arrhythmias
- Nerve disorders
Dizziness can cause you to feel off balance and increase your risk of falls and injury. To reduce your chance of injury:
- Don't make sudden moves.
- Stand up slowly to allow your body to adjust to the difference in position.
- Avoid operating heavy machinery, such as a car, until you feel better.
- Use handrails on stairs or ramps.
- Walk in well-lit areas where you can see better.
- Use assisted devices, such as a walker or cane to help maintain balance.
- Avoid activities that cause dizziness.
When you start to feel dizzy, slowly sit or lie down until the feeling passes.
When Should I Call My Doctor?
Call your doctor for:
- Dizziness affecting your daily activities, work, or driving
- Persistent nausea or vomiting
- Falls that occur during dizzy spells
- Problems with vision or hearing
- Feelings of anxiety or depression that last longer than 2 weeks
- Headaches that occur with dizziness
When Should I Call for Medical Help Immediately?
Call for emergency medical services right away for:
- Chest pains
- Loss of consciousness
- Inability to walk or stand
- Pain or numbness in your arms or legs
- Symptoms that persist for several minutes without improvement
- Falls that result in injury
If you think you have an emergency, call for emergency medical services right away.
American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
Dizziness—differential diagnosis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. .
Dizziness and vertigo. The Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/ear-nose-and-throat-disorders/approach-to-the-patient-with-ear-problems/dizziness-and-vertigo.
Post RE, Dickerson LM. Dizziness: A diagnostic approach. Am Fam Physician. 2010;82(4):361-368.
Last reviewed July 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board James Cornell, MD Last Updated: 8/8/2021