On-Call Advice

What Causes Dizziness?

Should I be concerned about dizzy spells?

Dizziness is a feeling of lightheadedness or near-fainting that can be quite short or last for varying lengths of time. People sometimes confuse dizziness with vertigo or disequilibrium. Vertigo is a spinning sensation, as if the room were spinning or the ground were moving under your feet. Disequilibrium refers to a loss of balance. While both conditions can cause feelings of dizziness, technically they are distinct from dizziness itself.

Dizziness is fairly common, and short episodes are usually nothing serious. You can feel dizzy due to skipping meals; dehydration; or a sudden drop in blood pressure, such as when you stand up too quickly and get lightheaded. Other causes of occasional dizziness include migraines; anxiety; stress; allergies; ear infections; anemia; heavy periods; and some medications, including certain antibiotics, antidepressants and blood pressure medications.

If dizziness becomes frequent and prolonged, or is accompanied by other symptoms, it could be a sign of a more serious condition. A drop in blood sugar, for example, can cause dizziness, and low blood sugar is a common occurrence in people with diabetes, often accompanied by symptoms like hunger, sweating and shakiness. Low blood sugar also can occur, although much less commonly, in people without diabetes.

If you experience dizziness with double vision; vomiting; or weakness, numbness or difficulty in using your arms and legs, seek medical help right away. If you experience back pain, shortness of breath or fainting with dizziness, it could be a sign of a heart attack, especially in women. Frequent dizziness also can be a sign of certain nervous system problems, such as peripheral neuropathy or multiple sclerosis, or of a tumor in the inner ear or brain.

If your dizziness is associated with spinning sensations or a feeling that the room is moving around you, it could be caused by problems with how your inner ear sends messages to the brain, a condition called benign paroxysmal positional vertigo; by too much fluid in the inner ear, typical of Meniere’s disease; or by inflammation of the nerves in your ear, known as labyrinthitis.

The bottom line is, if your dizzy spells are concerning to you in any way, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider.

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