Lightheadedness

Written by Rachel Nall, RN, BSN | Published on February 11, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on February 11, 2014

What Is Lightheadedness?

Lightheadedness is feeling as if you might faint. Your body may feel heavy while your head feels as if it is not getting enough blood. Another way to describe lightheadedness is as a “reeling sensation.” Lightheadedness may be accompanied by clouded vision and a loss of balance.

While not always cause for concern, lightheadedness can sometimes indicate an underlying medical condition and can increase your risk for experiencing a fall. For this reason, you should take caution when you feel lightheaded.

Lightheadedness often occurs when you move quickly from a seated to a standing position. This positional change results in decreased blood flow to the brain. This can create a drop in blood pressure that makes you feel faint. You are more likely to experience this condition if you are dehydrated and do not have enough water in your body due to illness or lack of sufficient fluid intake. The sensation may improve when you sit or lie back down.

Lightheadedness may be accompanied by nausea.

A different form of dizziness is known as vertigo. This type of dizziness is associated with a sensation that the world is moving around you.

Causes of Lightheadedness

Besides dehydration and positional change, other common causes of lightheadedness include:

  • allergies
  • altitude sickness
  • having a cold
  • having the flu
  • low blood sugar
  • using tobacco, alcohol, or illegal drugs

Some prescription and over-the-counter medications can also cause lightheadedness.

In some instances, lightheadedness is due to a more serious condition, such as:

  • heart conditions, such as a heart attack or heart beating out of rhythm
  • internal bleeding
  • shock that causes a significant blood pressure drop
  • stroke

When to Seek Medical Help

Seek immediate medical attention if you have lost a significant amount of blood and are feeling lightheaded. Also, lightheadedness accompanied by heart attack or stroke symptoms should be immediately treated. These symptoms include:

  • facial drooping on one side
  • nausea
  • pressure or pain in the chest
  • shortness of breath
  • unexplained sweating
  • vomiting

Do not attempt to drive yourself to the hospital if you experience these symptoms. Instead, call 911.

If your lightheadedness persists after a week or so or has resulted in an injury or nausea, see your physician. Also seek medical attention if your lightheadedness worsens over time.

(This information is a summary. Seek medical attention if you suspect you need urgent care.)

How Is Lightheadedness Treated?

Lightheadedness that is not due to severe blood loss, heart attack, or stroke often subsides with time. Other treatments will address the underlying condition.

How Can I Prevent Lightheadedness?

Taking care to stand up slowly can help to prevent lightheadedness. Drinking plenty of water, especially when you are ill, can also help you prevent lightheadedness.

Avoiding substances known to cause lightheadedness, such as alcohol or tobacco, can prevent lightheadedness. Antihistamines, sedatives, and anti-nausea medications may also cause lightheadedness. (Do not discontinue taking prescription medications without your physician’s recommendation.)

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