Who hasn’t gotten up quickly from sitting down and felt a little bit dizzy? Or had a stomach virus and things spun a bit? Or even stood up and felt a general loss of balance? Dizziness can be a side effect of minor health issues, but it can also be a sign of a serious — even life threatening — health problem.
Dizziness is an indicator
“Dizziness is absolutely not normal,” says Donnica Moore, M.D., president of Sapphire Women’s Health Group in Chester, N.J. “It tells you that something is wrong. It could be something simple and very easy to fix or it could be a sign of something else going on in your body.”
Dizziness is a more common complaint among older adults—probably because it’s a side effect of nearly every prescription drug (and many over-the-counter medications), and because age-related changes in your body can cause dizziness, Dr. Moore says. But not every bout of dizziness is a sign of major medical conditions.
There are home remedies, but tread lightly
In many cases, a little self-care can cure dizziness, but, adds Christopher Asandra, M.D., an anti-aging specialist and chief medical officer at NuMale, a national men’s health and wellness center with locations in eight cities around the country, you must take dizziness seriously, because even if it is not signaling a serious health condition, it can be the cause of dire health consequences.
“I’ve been an emergency room doctor and I have seen many patients whose dizziness leads them to fall. They break a hip, they have a head injury, or they break something else,” Dr. Asandra says.
Dr. Moore agrees. The first thing you should do if you feel dizzy is to sit or lie down. The last thing you should do is drive yourself to the doctor. “Dizziness can contribute to car accidents,” she says. “This is what friends are for. This is what Uber is for!”
What causes dizziness?
1. Dehydration or Overheating:
If you’ve been in the heat, been on a long plane ride, done a lot of exercise, spent a cold winter’s day in an overheated house, or just forgotten to eat or drink all day because you’ve been so busy, you can feel dizzy.
If you feel like the room is spinning, or that your head is spinning, you should have some water or, even better, orange juice (because it will give you a little sugar at the same time), and see if that makes you feel any better. If you are dehydrated or overheated, you may also be experiencing a drop in blood sugar, and the juice (which certainly won’t harm you) contains sugar and will lift your levels if your blood sugar is low.
Moore says you should lie down for a few minutes. But, she adds, be sure to tell someone you feel dizzy. If you live alone, call a friend and ask him or her to check back on you in 15 minutes or so. After you’ve had a drink and a little rest, see if the feeling passes. It should if dehydration or overheating are to blame. If not, call your doctor.
2. BPPV: Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo
Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo is a scary name for what is a common condition—the one where you get up out of bed and the room suddenly starts spinning. “The older you get, the more likely you are to have vertigo,” says Dr. Moore. That’s because this type of dizziness is caused by age-related changes in your inner ear and is the culprit of half of all dizziness cases in people over 50, according to The Vestibular Disorders Association.
It’s also referred to as positional dizziness and may arise if you’ve slept with your head in a particular position. If you experience a persistent problem with this type of dizziness, talk to your doctor.
Your doctor may try some head positioning techniques, designed to realign little calcium carbonate crystals in your ears that are at the root of BPPV. If head positioning doesn’t work, there are usually a few other options: anti-nausea medication can help, Dr. Arandra says. You can also try to follow up with some positioning exercises the doctor can show you that you do on your own.
3. Meniere’s Disease
People in their 40s and 50s are the ones most likely to develop this condition which is a disturbance of the inner ear. Sufferers experience dizziness or vertigo, but they also may notice a ringing in the ear (tinnitus), hearing loss, or a feeling of pressure or pain in the ear. “People say that their ear fills ‘full,’” says Dr. Asandra.
You may also experience nausea and vomiting. There is no known cause, but experts speculate it comes from an abnormal amount of fluid in the inner ear. A flare up of the disease can last anywhere from 20 minutes to four hours at a time, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology.
Meniere’s Disease can’t be cured, but its symptoms can be managed. Your doctor may prescribe motion sickness or anti-nausea medication,” Dr. Asandra says. Or you may be given a diuretic to help reduce fluid in your body.
A hearing aid can improve your hearing, and you may try exercises to regain your balance. In severe cases, the doctor may want to inject medication into your middle ear to help with vertigo.
People with Meniere’s Disease should get enough sleep because fatigue can bring on episodes. Also to be avoided: salt, caffeine, smoking, and alcohol. And if you’re having an attack, do not drive. If you feel yourself getting dizzy while driving, pull over to the side of the road, says Dr. Moore.
“If you read the package insert of every prescription medication, dizziness is listed as a possible side effect,” says Dr. Moore. So if you’ve recently started a medication—prescription or over-the-counter—it could be the reason you’re feeling dizzy. It may mean that you have to switch medications or stop the one that you are taking.
Dr. Asandra says that blood pressure medication can often cause dizziness. Blood pressure medications need to be closely monitored to make sure that your pressure has not climbed too high or fallen too low.
If you feel dizzy and are on medication, consult your doctor, enumerating a full list of all medications you are taking, including supplements, herbal remedies and over-the-counter treatments.
Supplements can negatively interact with prescription medications so you do need to make sure your physician knows everything that you’re taking. A simple change of medication or adjustment of dosage may bring you a whole lot of relief.
Low levels of iron in the body are known as anemia and the symptoms associated with this condition are often low energy and feelings of fatigue. But sufferers can also feel dizzy, says Dr. Asandra.
Your doctor will draw blood to determine if you are anemic. If so, you may be prescribed an iron supplement to increase your blood levels. This should make you feel better, and ease your dizzy symptoms.
6. Stroke or mini-stroke
Dizziness may not be the first symptom of a stroke, but if you experience it as a sudden change, in combination with a weakness on one side of your body, increased heart-rate, loss of movement, a severe headache or loss of speech, call 911, says Dr. Asrandra. You need to be seen immediately.
You will be examined for stroke, and depending on the diagnosis, treated with anticoagulants (blood thinners and clot busters) and antihypertensives (blood pressure lowering medication.) Depending on the type of stroke, you may require more medical intervention.
If you have low blood sugar, you are likely to feel lightheaded. “It’s no fun,” says Dr. Asandra, noting that low blood sugar can make you also feel sweaty, clammy, and extremely uncomfortable. Your blood pressure will drop. You may even black out, Dr. Moore adds.
If you are diabetic, this is a particular danger. In addition to experiencing dizziness from low blood sugar, diabetics can also find themselves dizzy from too much or too little insulin. But even if you’re not diabetic, if you have been overworking or overexerting, and several hours have passed without you taking food or drink, you could be experiencing hypoglycemia—and a dizzy spell.
Quick sugar. Drink some orange juice. Eat some complex carbohydrates—whole-wheat toast with some jam, for example. Keep some sugar drops handy or even a candy bar. These foods contain a good amount of sugar which can help restore your sugar levels. If your symptoms do not subside, seek medical advice.
8. Low blood pressure
Your doctor may be telling you that you need to lower your blood pressure, but it can be too low. Generally, when the top number of your blood pressure is below 100 and the bottom number is below 60 (and this doesn’t have to happen together), you are considered to have low blood pressure.
For people whose BP readings are consistently in this range, it’s not a problem. But if you experience a drop in blood pressure (due to dehydration, heart disease, endocrine problems, or a severe infection of some type) you may experience dizziness.
Depending on the reasons for the low blood pressure, your doctor may offer different solutions. You may need to eat more salt or drink more water because fluids can raise your blood volume. Your doctor may suggest compression stockings to stop blood from pooling in your legs. There are also some medications designed to raise blood pressure.
In general, dizziness is not an emergency. But it can be, says Dr. Moore. Call 911 if your dizziness is accompanied by any of the following symptoms:
- Black out or loss of memory
- Chest pain
- The worst headache of your life
- If it affects your vision or speech
- If it comes with a sudden loss of hearing.
These can be symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, or vestibular neuritis or labyrinthitis, which are viral infections of the inner ear that begin with sudden onset and bring on intense dizziness. These represent only 5% of all dizziness complaints, according to a the American Hearing Research Foundation, and an ER doctor can examine you and make the determination.