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What causes dizziness?

Dizziness refers to a range of sensations, such as feeling as though the room is spinning, lightheadedness, and feeling physically unsteady. Dizziness has many possible causes, which may relate to a person’s external environment, the medications they take, or an underlying condition.

Recurring dizziness or severe dizzy spells can significantly interfere with a person’s life. It rarely indicates a medical emergency, however. People can experience dizziness after:

  • spinning around quickly
  • standing or sitting up too fast
  • engaging in high-intensity exercise
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Usually, people will be able to identify the cause of their dizziness. However, this symptom may occur unexpectedly or without any clear reason.

The causes of dizziness can range from temporary physical changes to more serious underlying medical conditions, some of which we will detail below.

1. Vertigo

Woman holding her head and wondering why am I dizzy
Vertigo or a migraine can cause dizziness.

Many people use the terms “vertigo” and “dizziness” interchangeably.

Although these conditions create similar sensations, they are slightly different.

When someone feels dizzy, they can feel woozy or disoriented. Vertigo, on the other hand, refers to the artificial sensation of movement. Vertigo can cause people to feel as though the environment around them is spinning or tilting.

Vertigo occurs due to the development of problems in the inner ear. Causes of vertigo can include:

Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo

Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo develops when calcium carbonate particles collect in the inner ear canals.

These canals send information about the body’s position and movements to the brain, but the presence of the calcium particles causes the brain to misread the information.

Ménière’s disease

This inner ear condition has no known cause, but some scientists believe that it can occur when fluid builds up in the ear canals.

Ménière’s disease can develop suddenly and without any apparent cause. It can give rise to vertigo, a ringing or roaring sound in the ears, and hearing loss.


Infections can cause inflammation in the inner ear, or labyrinth. Labyrinthitis tends to develop after a viral infection, such as a cold or flu.

Antiviral and antihistamine medications can effectively treat labyrinthitis. However, parts of the inner ear may sustain permanent damage as a result of this condition.

2. Motion sickness

Repetitive motion from being in a vehicle, such as a car, airplane, or boat, can disrupt the structures of the inner ear, causing dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. People call this “motion sickness” or “seasickness.”

Being pregnant or taking certain medications can increase a person’s sensitivity to motion and increase their risk of experiencing motion sickness. The symptoms of motion sickness usually subside away once the person sets foot on solid ground.

3. Migraine

A migraine is a type of recurring headache that can cause a throbbing or pulsing pain on one side of the head. The American Migraine Foundation estimate that 30–50% of people will experience dizziness during a migraine episode.

Sometimes, people experience dizziness before the onset of a migraine episode. Other neurologic symptoms, or auras, can precede the pain of a migraine headache. Auras can affect a person’s vision, speech, and motor control.

4. Low blood pressure

A sharp drop in blood pressure can cause a brief sensation of lightheadedness. Blood pressure changes can occur after sitting or standing up too quickly.

Other conditions that can cause blood pressure changes include:

Taking certain medications, such as diuretics, beta-blockers, or antidepressants, can also cause changes in blood pressure.

5. Cardiovascular disease

Conditions that affect the cardiovascular system, such as the buildup of plaque in the arteries and congestive heart failure, can cause dizziness. People may experience dizziness or feel lightheaded before or after a heart attack or stroke.

If a person has cardiovascular disease, they will likely experience other signs and symptoms, including:

  • irregular heartbeat
  • shortness of breath
  • discomfort or tightness in the chest
  • a persistent cough
  • excess fluid in the arms, legs, or feet
  • fatigue
  • nausea, vomiting, or both

6. Low iron

tofu high iron
Eating a diet rich in iron can reduce the symptoms of anemia.

Iron deficiency can result in a condition called anemia, in which the body does not have enough oxygen-rich blood.

Anemia can cause the following symptoms:

  • dizziness
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • fatigue

Making appropriate dietary changes and taking iron supplements can help treat mild forms of iron-deficiency anemia. People who have a severe iron deficiency may require a blood transfusion.

7. Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)

Hypoglycemia occurs when blood glucose, or blood sugar, falls below the normal levels. Causes of hypoglycemia include:

  • skipping meals
  • consuming alcohol
  • taking certain medications, such as insulin or aspirin
  • having hormonal imbalances

Symptoms of hypoglycemia can appear suddenly and vary in severity. A few of these symptoms include:

  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • loss of balance
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • hunger
  • mood changes
  • difficulty concentrating
  • irregular heartbeat

8. Autoimmune inner ear disease

Autoimmune inner ear disease (AIED) refers to any condition wherein the immune system mistakenly attacks the inner ear. AIED can cause hearing loss in one or both ears.

Other symptoms of AIED include:

  • dizziness
  • tinnitus, or ringing in the ears
  • loss of balance or coordination

AIED causes nonspecific symptoms that are similar to those of an ear infection. For doctors to accurately diagnose AIED, they need to take a full medical history, perform a physical examination, and track any additional symptoms.

People who have AIED may develop another autoimmune disease that affects the entire body.

9. Stress

anxious woman closes her laptop
Stress and anxiety are common symptoms of dizziness.

Long-term or chronic stress may contribute to the development of significant health problems, such as depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, or immune dysfunction.

During the stress response, the brain releases hormones that affect the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

These hormones narrow the blood vessels, raise the heart rate, and cause rapid, shallow breathing. These responses can lead to dizziness or lightheadedness.

Other symptoms of stress include:

  • sweating
  • trembling or shaking
  • headaches
  • chest pain
  • rapid heartbeat
  • difficulty sleeping
  • difficulty concentrating
  • nausea

10. Anxiety

Dizziness is a common symptom of anxiety. However, the exact relationship between the two varies among people.

Some people may experience anxiety attacks that trigger dizziness, while others might have a sudden onset of dizziness that triggers an anxiety attack.

Stressful events, such as an exam or a challenging emotional situation, can trigger anxiety attacks. People may feel dizzy, disoriented, and nauseous during an anxiety attack.

Other symptoms of anxiety include:

  • worry
  • restlessness or fidgeting
  • difficulty concentrating
  • sleep problems
  • mood changes
  • irritability
  • rapid heart rate
  • headache
  • sweating
  • dry mouth

When to see a doctor

Dizziness may indicate a more serious underlying medical condition when it occurs alongside symptoms such as:

  • double vision
  • vomiting
  • fever
  • numbness
  • difficulty moving or controlling the arms or legs
  • headache
  • chest pain
  • loss of consciousness


Experiencing an episode of sudden or severe dizziness can be alarming. However, the dizziness usually resolves on its own and does not require emergency medical attention.

Dizziness is a nonspecific symptom that can indicate an underlying medical condition, such as anxiety, stress, or low blood sugar.

People should speak with their healthcare provider if they experience severe or recurring dizziness.

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