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Dizziness is a feeling of lightheadedness. There are many possible causes for dizziness. For cancer patients, the cause is often nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy. Treatment of nausea and vomiting with antiemetic drugs may help relieve dizziness. Dizziness and Vertigo are not the same - they have different causes and treatments.

  • What is dizziness?
  • What causes dizziness?
  • Why is dizziness important?
  • How is dizziness treated?
  • What else can I do?

What is dizziness?

Dizziness is a sensation often described as lightheadedness or feeling woozy. Most people notice dizziness when they change positions or move their heads. You might feel like the room is spinning around you, or that you are spinning, a sensation known as vertigo. You may also feel “faint” or dizzy when you rapidly change from lying or sitting to a standing position. Dizziness may be a fleeting sensation or the prolonged symptom of a more serious health problem.

What causes dizziness?

There are many possible causes for dizziness, some are:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Anemia
  • Dehydration
  • Medications to control high blood pressure or heart rate
  • Problems with the balance mechanism in your inner ear
  • Low blood pressure when you stand up (orthostatic hypotension)

Why is dizziness important?

Dizziness may be a sign of a more serious imbalance or problem. You should contact your doctor and carefully describe your symptoms so that the cause can be identified and managed.

How is dizziness treated?

Some medications may help to decrease the feelings of unsteadiness or imbalance associated with dizziness. These medications are also known as “motion sickness” drugs. Examples include:

  • Meclizine (Antivert®)
  • Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine®)
  • Scopolamine patch

Prevention of nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy through the use of antiemetic drugs may also decrease feelings of dizziness. Go to the Nausea and Vomiting section for more information on treating this side effect.

What else can I do?

Try these tips for managing dizziness:

  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids. Try for 2-3 liters of fluid per day in the form of fruit juices, water, non-caffeinated drinks and non-alcoholic beverages.
  • Change positions slowly. Allow your body a chance to adapt to the position change. For some people, lying down until the dizzy episode passes may be the best solution.
  • Avoid medications that have caused dizziness in the past.

Vertigo

Vertigo is the sensation of feeling off balance. Vertigo is often caused by an inner ear problem. Some of the most common causes include:

BPPV. These initials stand for benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. BPPV occurs when tiny calcium particles (canaliths) are dislodged from their normal location and collect in the inner ear. The inner ear sends signals to the brain about head and body movements relative to gravity. It helps you keep your balance. BPPV can occur for no known reason and may be associated with age.

Meniere's disease. This is an inner ear disorder thought to be caused by a buildup of fluid and changing pressure in the ear. It can cause episodes of vertigo along with ear ringing (tinnitus) and hearing loss.

Vestibular neuritis or labyrinthitis. This is an inner ear problem usually related to infection (usually viral). The infection causes inflammation in the inner ear around nerves that are important for helping the body sense balance

Less often vertigo may be associated with:

  • Head or neck injury
  • Stroke or brain tumor
  • Some medications can cause ear damage
  • Migraine headaches
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Symptoms of Vertigo

Vertigo is often triggered by a change in the position of your head. People with vertigo typically describe it as feeling like they are:

  • Spinning
  • Tilting
  • Swaying
  • Unbalanced
  • Pulled to one direction

Other symptoms that may accompany vertigo include:

  • Feeling nauseated
  • Vomiting
  • Abnormal or jerking eye movements (nystagmus)
  • Headache
  • Sweating
  • Tinnitus

Symptoms can last a few minutes to a few hours or more and may come and go.

Treatment for Vertigo

Treatment for vertigo depends on what's causing it. In many cases, vertigo goes away without any treatment. This is because your brain is able to adapt, at least in part, to the inner ear changes, relying on other mechanisms to maintain balance.

For some, treatment is needed and may include:

Vestibular rehabilitation. This is a type of physical therapy aimed at helping strengthen the vestibular system. The function of the vestibular system is to send signals to the brain about head and body movements relative to gravity.

Vestibular rehab may be recommended if you have recurrent bouts of vertigo. It helps train your other senses to compensate for vertigo.

Canalith repositioning maneuvers. Guidelines from the American Academy of Neurology recommend a series of specific head and body movements for BPPV. The movements are done to move the calcium deposits out of the canal into an inner ear chamber so they can be absorbed by the body. You will likely have vertigo symptoms during the procedure as the canaliths move.

A doctor or physical therapist can guide you through the movements. The movements are safe and often effective.

Medicine. In some cases, medication may be given to relieve symptoms such as nausea or motion sickness associated with vertigo.

If vertigo is caused by an infection or inflammation, antibiotics or steroids may reduce swelling and cure infection.

For Meniere's disease, diuretics (water pills) may be prescribed to reduce pressure from fluid buildup.

Surgery. In a few cases, surgery may be needed for vertigo.

If vertigo is caused by a more serious underlying problem, such as a tumor or injury to the brain or neck, treatment for those problems may help to alleviate the vertigo.

Learn More About the Side Effects of Cancer Treatment