Dizziness is one of the most common reasons adults visit their doctors — right up there with chest pain and fatigue. Although frequent dizzy spells or constant dizziness can keep you from doing much of anything, dizziness rarely signals a serious, life-threatening condition. Treatment of dizziness depends on the cause and your symptoms, but is usually effective.
Difference between Lightheadedness and Vertigo
- Lightheadedness is a feeling that you are about to faint or “pass out.” Although you may feel dizzy, you do not feel as though you or your surroundings are moving. Lightheadedness often goes away or improves when you lie down. If lightheadedness gets worse, it can lead to a feeling of almost fainting or a fainting spell (syncope). You may sometimes feel nauseated or vomit when you are lightheaded.
It is common to feel lightheaded from time to time. Lightheadedness usually is not caused by a serious problem. It 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).
- Vertigo is a feeling that you or your surroundings are moving when there is no actual movement. You may feel as though you are spinning, whirling, falling, or tilting. When you have severe vertigo, you may feel very nauseated or vomit. You may have trouble walking or standing, and you may lose your balance and fall.
There are 2 types of dizziness causes
Causes of dizziness sometimes related with an ear condition. A simple way for your doctor to distinguish between ear-related dizziness and dizziness due to other causes is to ask if it occurs only when you are upright, or even when you’re lying down:
- If the dizziness only happens when you’re upright, the cause is probably not related to the ear.
- If the dizziness sometimes happens when you’re lying down, the cause is usually an ear condition.
It’s a good idea to keep a diary of your dizziness, recording when and where you experience the problem.
Lightheadedness has many causes
- Illnesses such as the flu or colds. Home treatment of your flu and cold symptoms usually will relieve lightheadedness.
- Vomiting, diarrhea, fevers, and other illnesses that cause dehydration.
- Very deep or rapid breathing (hyperventilation).
- Anxiety and stress.
- The use of tobacco, alcohol, or illegal drugs.
- A viral illness that affects the ear – this can cause a severe form of dizziness called vertigo
- Migraine (dizziness may come on before, after or even without the headache)
- Stress or anxiety, especially if you tend to hyperventilate (over-breathe)
Less common causes of dizziness
- A low blood sugar level, which is usually seen in people with diabetes
- A sudden fall in blood pressure when you suddenly sit or stand up, which goes away after lying down – this is know as postural hypotension and is more common in older people
- Dehydration or heat exhaustion – dehydration could be due to not drinking enough during exercise, or illness that causes vomiting, diarrhoea or fever
- Decreased blood flow in the back of the brain, called vertebrobasilar insufficiency – the blood vessels leading to the brain from the heart may be blocked (known as atherosclerosis)
- Any severe illness or disease that affects the whole body
- Recreational drugs or excess alcohol (either binge drinking, or long-term alcohol misuse)
- Certain types of prescription medicine, such as antidepressants or blood pressure medication
- A heart rhythm problem, such as atrial fibrillation (a fast, irregular heartbeat)
- Carbon monoxide poisoning
Let’s look deeper
- Lightheadedness can be a symptom of a more serious condition, such as a heart problem, stroke, internal bleeding or shock, but this doesn’t mean you have to phone an ambulance every time you get up from the couch too quickly. If you are suffering from any of these conditions, you will likely have more dominant symptoms like chest pain, a racing heart, a change in vision or loss of speech.
- Vertigo, on the other hand, is usually caused by a problem in the inner ear, the vestibular system that controls our balance. In the simplest terms, light-headedness happens when the brain doesn’t get enough blood and vertigo occurs when the brain isn’t getting the right instructions from the inner ear about how to balance the world in front of it. It is important to know the difference between different kinds of dizziness so that, when seeking a medical professional, you give them the right information.
The right information leads to the right diagnosis, and the right diagnosis leads to the right treatment. The direction of care is decidedly different since light-headedness may suggest decreased oxygen or nutrient supply to the brain due to a number of reasons, including heart rhythm disturbances or dehydration, while vertigo will send the doctor looking for a neurologic or inner ear cause.
More serious cases
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.
An uncommon 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.
More often than not, light-headedness will subside within a few hours but there are DO’S AND DON’TS to managing it. If you tend to get light-headed when you stand up, follow these guidelines:
- DON’T change your posture suddenly.
- DO Get up from a lying position slowly, and stay seated for a few moments before standing.
- DO make sure to have something to hold on to when you stand up.
- DON’T go into the light. Bright lights can have an aggravating effect.
Additionally, if you have a cold, the flu, or other viral illness, stay hydrated with plenty of water. However, if suffering from nausea and unable to keep fluids down, intravenous fluids might be needed. Eating something sugary and positioning the head between the knees can also help to cure lightheadedness.