Lightheadedness: Definition & Patient Education
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Lightheadedness

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 due to illness or insufficient fluid intake. The sensation may improve when you sit or lie back down.

Lightheadedness may be accompanied by nausea and dizziness. Dizziness is the feeling of being unbalanced or unsteady. It’s often caused by problems with the inner ear, brain, heart, or use of certain medications. According to Cleveland Clinic, 4 out of 10 people have experienced dizziness severe enough to send them to a doctor. Dizziness can be dangerous because it changes your sense of balance and can make you more likely to fall.

One type of dizziness, called vertigo, causes the false sense that your surroundings are moving or spinning when in reality they are still. Vertigo may cause you to feel like you are floating, tilting, swaying, or whirling. Most cases of vertigo are caused by inner ear disorders, which send signals to your brain that aren’t consistent with the signs your eyes and sensory nerves are receiving.  

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
  • dehydration caused by vomiting, diarrhea, fevers, and other illnesses
  • very deep or fast breathing (hyperventilation)
  • anxiety and stress
  • use of tobacco, alcohol, or illicit drugs

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

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

  • heart conditions, such as a heart attack or heart beating out of rhythm
  • internal bleeding (in your internal organs or organ systems)
  • 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 an ambulance.

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.

Treatment for the less-serious causes of lightheadedness may include:

  • drinking more water
  • receiving intravenous fluids (hydration fluids given through a vein)
  • eating or drinking something sugary
  • drinking fluids containing electrolytes
  • lying down or sitting to reduce the elevation of the head relative to the body

For more serious cases of lightheadedness, or for lightheadedness that doesn’t go away, treatment may include:

  • water pills
  • low-salt diet
  • antinausea medications
  • antianxiety medications, such as Diazepam (Valium) or Alprazolam (Xanax)
  • antimigraine medications
  • balance therapy, aka vestibular rehabilitation (exercises to help make the balance system less sensitive to motion)
  • psychotherapy to reduce anxiety
  • antibiotic injections in the inner ear that’s causing balance problems (this disables balance in that ear, allowing the other ear to take over balance)
  • removal of the sense organ of the inner ear, known as a labyrinthectomy (a rare surgery to disable the function of the inner ear that’s causing balance problems so the other ear can take over)

How can I prevent lightheadedness?

Standing up slowly and avoiding sudden changes in posture can help to prevent lightheadedness. Drink plenty of water, especially when you are ill or exercising intensely. Avoid bright lights and wear sunglasses when outdoors.

Avoid substances known to cause lightheadedness, such as alcohol or tobacco. Antihistamines, sedatives, and antinausea medications may also cause lightheadedness. Do not discontinue taking prescription medications without your physician’s recommendation.

If you tend to experience lightheadedness on a regular basis, here are some additional tips to help improve the quality of your life:

  • be aware you may lose your balance when walking, which can cause a fall and serious injury
  • move carefully and slowly, using a cane for mobility if necessary
  • prevent falls in your home by removing things you may trip on, such as area rugs and electrical cords; add nonslip mats to your bath or shower floor; make sure your home is well-lit
  • sit or lie down as soon as you feel lightheaded; lie down with your eyes closed in a darkened room if you’re experiencing a serious bout of vertigo
  • do not drive a vehicle or operate heavy machinery if you often become lightheaded without warning
  • eat a healthy diet rich in a variety of nutrients
  • get enough sleep (8 to 10 hours for teenagers, 7 to 9 hours for young adults and adults, and 7 to 8 hours for older adults)
  • avoid additional stress by practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, yoga and meditation
  • drink enough fluids (at least eight glasses a day)

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