What Causes Lightheadedness?

By Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
May 25, 2022

Do you experience lightheadedness, or that dizzy feeling that makes you feel like you’re going to fall down?

Maybe you’ve experienced the feeling the world is spinning, or like you’re about to pass out.

But what causes this sensation, and why do some people experience it more than others?

This common problem can occur for all kinds of reasons, including dehydration and low blood pressure. In this article, we look at some of the causes and treatments for lightheadedness.

We’ll also go over when you should see a healthcare provider. 

Symptoms

People experiencing lightheadedness may describe it as any of a number of sensations, such as:

  • A false sense of motion or spinning (vertigo)
  • Lightheadedness or feeling faint
  • Unsteadiness or a loss of balance
  • A feeling of floating, “wooziness,” or heavy-headedness

Other symptoms can include:

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Causes 

There are many possible causes of lightheadedness, including those mentioned above.

These include:

Dehydration 

One of the most common causes of lightheadedness is dehydration.

When your body lacks sufficient fluids, your blood pressure drops, which can lead to dizziness or lightheadedness.

In order to prevent lightheadedness due to dehydration, it is important to drink plenty of fluids throughout the day, especially if you are active or exposed to hot weather.

If untreated, dehydration can lead to a serious medical issue

Low blood sugar  

Another common cause of lightheadedness is low blood sugar or hypoglycemia.

This can happen if you skip a meal or wait too long to eat. It can also occur in people who have diabetes, especially when insulin levels are not well controlled.

When blood sugar levels drop, it can cause dizziness, weakness, and shakiness.

To prevent lightheadedness due to low blood sugar, be sure to eat regular meals and snacks and monitor your blood sugar levels if you have diabetes.

Low blood pressure 

Lightheadedness can also be caused by low blood pressure or hypotension and is most commonly asymptomatic. This can happen when you stand up too quickly or if you lose a lot of fluids due to vomiting or diarrhea.

Low blood pressure can also be a side effect of certain medications and may require immediate medical attention.

If you have lightheadedness due to low blood pressure, it is important to drink plenty of fluids and avoid standing up too quickly. 

You should also talk to your healthcare professional about any medications you’re taking that may be causing your blood pressure to drop.

If this is a side effect of treatment for high blood pressure, you should talk to your doctor about having your medication dosage adjusted. 

Anemia (low iron)

Anemia occurs when there is a decrease in the level of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen.

Anemia can be caused by blood loss, such as from heavy menstrual periods or not getting enough iron in your diet.

If you have anemia, you may experience fatigue, shortness of breath, and other symptoms in addition to lightheadedness.

Eating more foods like eggs, red meat, and leafy greens can help prevent anemia by providing you with the iron your body needs.

Internal bleeding

Internal bleeding can happen when there is bleeding inside the body, for example from a ruptured blood vessel, trauma or an ulcer in your stomach or intestines.

Symptoms can include lightheadedness, as well as nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.

If you have these symptoms along with lightheadedness, it is important to seek medical attention immediately. 

Heart problems

Weak cardiac muscle, heart valve problems, arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat), low cardiac output, and many other conditions can cause inadequate blood flow to the brain.

This can lead to symptoms like lightheadedness and can happen without warning.

It can be very serious and even life-threatening, especially if you have a history of heart disease or stroke.

Vertigo 

Vertigo is a false sensation of spinning or moving,  even when you’re lying still.

It affects all ages, and may be caused by a problem with the way balance works in your inner ear or it could be due to a head injury.

Meniere’s Syndrome 

Meniere’s syndrome is a disorder of the inner ear that can lead to vertigo as well as ringing in the ears and hearing loss. It is most common in people ages 40 to 60.

A Meniere’s attack can occur suddenly and last from 20 minutes to 12 hours.

Certain medications

Some hypertension, heart, and antidepressant medications can drop your blood pressure and make you woozy.

Insulin and some other drugs prescribed to lower blood sugar in people with diabetes may cause the same problem. Additionally, dizziness can be a common problem if you’re older and take multiple medications.

Diagnosis

The most important element in diagnosing lightheadedness is to take a thorough medical history, including questions about your symptoms and how often they occur.

Your healthcare professional may also perform a physical exam to help pinpoint the cause of your symptoms.

Tests that may be ordered include blood tests to check for anemia or low blood sugar, as well as imaging studies like CT scans or MRIs if there is internal bleeding or other problems with the brain.

Treatment

Treatment for lightheadedness depends on the underlying cause.

If you have low blood sugar, treatment involves eating or drinking something that will raise your blood sugar levels.

For those with anemia, treatment may involve taking iron supplements or changing your diet to include more foods that are high in iron.

If you are diagnosed with vertigo, your healthcare professional may prescribe medication to help with the symptoms.

If it’s found that you have a heart condition causing your lightheadedness, treatment will focus on addressing the underlying heart problem.

For long-term (chronic) conditions, your healthcare provider may recommend vestibular rehabilitation.

It’s similar to physical therapy, with the goal of improving your balance through specific exercises.

Prevention

There are some things you can do to help prevent lightheadedness, such as:

  • Eating a healthy diet that includes plenty of iron-rich foods
  • Taking breaks often if you are standing for long periods of time
  • Wearing loose-fitting clothing
  • Avoiding sudden changes in position
  • Moving slowly when changing positions
  • Drinking plenty of fluids
  • Practice exercises that can improve balance, such as tai chi or yoga
  • Sit on the edge of the bed for several minutes in the morning before you stand up.
  • Avoid wearing high-heeled shoes.
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When to See a Medical Provider

While some cases of lightheadedness are relatively mild and resolve on their own with little treatment, others may require medical attention.

You should seek medical help if you experience any severe symptoms and also if you:

  • Lost a lot of blood
  • Are numb and weak on one side
  • Feel pressure in your chest
  • Feel sick, cold and sweaty
  • Have trouble talking or are confused
  • Can’t breathe properly
  • Are vomiting

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a healthcare provider in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is lightheadedness a sign of?
Lightheadedness can be a symptom of many different conditions, including low blood sugar, anemia, vertigo, heart problems, and chronic conditions like Meniere’s syndrome. If you are experiencing lightheadedness that is severe or lasts for more than a few minutes at a time, it is important to seek medical attention from your healthcare provider to determine the cause and receive appropriate treatment.
When should I be concerned about lightheadedness?
Seek medical attention if you are experiencing lightheadedness that is severe or lasts for more than a few minutes at a time. Other symptoms that may indicate a more serious medical condition include numbness and weakness on one side of the body, pressure in the chest, difficulty breathing, confusion, and vomiting.
Can COVID-19 make you feel lightheaded?
Yes, one of the symptoms of COVID-19 is lightheadedness. If you are experiencing lightheadedness along with other symptoms like fever, cough, and shortness of breath, it is important to seek medical attention and get tested for COVID-19.
How do you cure lightheadedness?
Treatment for lightheadedness depends on the underlying cause. To prevent and treat lightheadedness, it is important to maintain a healthy diet rich in iron-rich foods and nutrients, stay hydrated, and avoid sudden changes in position.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN

Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN is a board certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 15 years experience. He received his Undergraduate and Graduate degrees from William Paterson University and his doctoral degree from Drexel University. He has spent his career working in the Emergency Room and Primary Care. The last 6 years of his career have been dedicated to the field of digital medicine. He has created departments geared towards this specialized practice as well as written blogs and a book about the topic.

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