Dizziness or Lightheadedness

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2022

Feeling dizzy or lightheaded can be a side effect of cancer and its treatment. You may feel like you are about to lose your balance, faint or pass out, or feel like the room is spinning. Dizziness may get worse when you stand up, walk, climb stairs, or move your head.

Many things can cause dizziness. Tell your health care team if you feel dizzy or lightheaded for more than a couple days.

What causes dizziness when you have cancer?

Possible causes of dizziness from cancer and its treatment include:

  • Medications, including many types of cancer treatments

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Anemia, which is when you have too low levels of red blood cells

  • A tumor, especially in the brain or another area of the body that affects your balance

  • Radiation therapy to the brain, spine, or other parts of the body related to the nervous system

Be sure to tell your health care team about dizziness or any other symptoms you may have during or after your treatment. There are many medications that are available to help treat cancer-related symptoms and treatment-related side effects.

Other causes of dizziness

Cancer or its treatment are not the only causes of dizziness. Feeling anxious, stressed, or skipping a meal can also make you dizzy.

Other causes of dizziness unrelated to cancer include:

  • Stroke. If you suddenly feel dizzy, check for other signs of a stroke. These include your face drooping to one side, difficulty lifting or moving one arm, and difficulty speaking.

  • Blood pressure change, either being too high or too low

  • Heart problems, such as coronary artery disease, irregular heartbeat, damage to heart valves, or heart failure

  • Low blood sugar

  • Dehydration, which is not having enough fluid in the body

  • Infection

  • Inner ear disease or injury. Your body’s center of balance is located in your inner ear. Getting hit on the ear or side of the head, having a condition called Meniere’s disease, or developing natural crystals in the inner ear can all cause dizziness.

  • Sitting or standing up suddenly. This is more common if you are age 65 or older, but it can happen at any age. If you already feel dizzy from cancer or its treatment, changing positions quickly can make the dizziness worse.

You can be at risk of falling if you are dizzy at any age. Adults aged 65 and older are at a higher risk of a serious injury if they fall. Learn more about reducing your risk of falls.

How to manage dizziness

Tell your health care team if you are dizzy for more than a few hours or days. This is especially important if the dizziness gets worse, or you have other symptoms that need immediate medical attention. These include a headache that does not go away, vision changes, hearing changes, uncontrolled nausea and vomiting, chest pain, sweating, shortness of breath, racing heartbeat, fever, or stroke-like symptoms.

Make sure your health care team knows about all the medications you take, including medications for high blood pressure, heart conditions, blood thinners, or excess fluid build up.

Relieving side effects is an important part of cancer care and treatment. This is called palliative care or supportive care. Talk with your health care team about any symptoms you experience and any change in symptoms.

Tips for coping with dizziness include:

  • Drink plenty of fluids. Aim for 8 to 12 eight-ounce glasses of water or other fluids each day.

  • Avoid drinking a lot of coffee, tea, soda and other beverages with caffeine.

  • Change positions slowly. For example, sit up carefully from a lying position. If you get dizzy when you stand up, hold a chair or table for balance and stand up more slowly than usual.

  • Walk slowly and carefully if you are dizzy. Hold handrails when you go up and down stairs.

  • Consider using a walking stick or cane to help you keep your balance.

  • Avoid driving if you are often dizzy.

What are treatments for dizziness?

Depending on the cause of your dizziness, your health care team may recommend intravenous fluids or blood products, or may recommend additional tests. Your doctor might prescribe a medicine for dizziness. Some are available without a prescription. Dizziness medications include:

  • Meclizine (Antivert)

  • Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine)

  • Scopolamine (Transderm-Scop), a prescription patch you wear on your skin.

  • Prochlorperazine (Compazine)

  • Promethazine (Phenergan)

If an inner ear problem is causing your dizziness, your health care team might give you exercises to help improve your balance. If you have Meniere’s disease, you might need to eat less salt and take medicine to lower the pressure in your inner ear.

Questions to ask the health care team

  • Is dizziness a common side effect of the kind of cancer I have or the cancer treatment I am receiving?

  • How soon should I contact the health care team if I am feeling dizzy?

  • How can I reach them during regular business hours? After hours?

  • What are signs that I should seek immediate medical care?

  • What is causing my dizziness? How can it be treated?

  • Is there medication I take to make my dizziness feel better?

  • Should I keep track of my side effects, including dizziness?

Related Resources

Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Side Effects of Radiation Therapy

More Information

National Library of Medicine: Dizziness and Vertigo