Dizziness or Lightheadedness

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 07/2018

Feeling dizzy or lightheaded is a possible side effect of cancer and its treatment. You might feel as if you are about to lose your balance or that the room is spinning around you. You might also feel like you are about to faint. Dizziness may get worse when you stand up, walk, climb stairs, or simply move your head.

Some people consider dizziness as part of a specific illness, such as high blood pressure. Feeling anxious, stressed, or simply not eating for a long time can also make you dizzy. But you should tell your health care team if you feel dizzy or lightheaded for more than a couple days. This is especially important if you have cancer or are having treatment because it could be a sign of change in your health. Or it could be a side effect your health care team can help you with.

Causes of dizziness

Possible causes of dizziness from cancer and its treatment include:

  • Medication, including many types of chemotherapy

  • Nausea and vomiting

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

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

Dizziness can also be linked to vision or hearing problems, such as ringing in the ears.

Cancer treatments linked to dizziness

Some types of chemotherapy may cause dizziness. Drug-related dizziness may go away after you have taken the drug for a few days or weeks. Tell your health care team about the dizziness and any other symptoms you have during chemotherapy. Today, many medications are available to treat the side effects from chemotherapy.

Radiation therapy to the brain, spine, or other parts of the body related to the nervous system can also cause dizziness.

Other causes of dizziness

Cancer and its treatment are not the only possible causes for dizziness. Other possible causes include:

  • High blood pressure

  • Heart problems

  • 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.

Warning signs of a stroke

Dizziness can also be a sign of a stroke. If you suddenly feel dizzy, check for other signs of a stroke, including your face drooping on one side, difficulty lifting or moving one arm, and difficulty speaking.

Dizziness when you change position

You might feel dizzy if you sit or stand up suddenly. This is more common if you are 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. But older adults are more likely to have a serious injury if they fall.

Managing dizziness

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

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 difficulty seeing or hearing normally. Make sure your health care team knows about all the medications you take, including medications for high blood pressure.

Here are some tips for coping with dizziness:

  • 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, and cola, because the caffeine in them could affect you.

  • 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.

Dizziness medications

Your doctor might prescribe medicines for dizziness. Some are available without a prescription. Dizziness medications include:

  • Meclizine (Antivert)

  • Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine)

  • Scopolamine (Transderm-Scop), which is given as a patch you wear on your skin, by prescription.

  • 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.

Related Resources

Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Side Effects of Radiation Therapy

More Information

National Library of Medicine: Dizziness and Vertigo