What could be making you feel dizzy and sick?
Are you feeling dizzy and nauseous out of nowhere, but can’t figure out why? Dizziness may make you feel unbalanced, like you may faint, or like the world around you is moving or spinning (known as vertigo). Nausea, meanwhile, is an uneasy feeling in your stomach, like you want to be sick (vomit).
Dizziness and nausea often happen separately, but they can also strike together. Usually they’re easily treated and your symptoms go away on their own, or with the help of medication from a doctor. Very occasionally, they can be a sign of something more serious that needs urgent medical attention.
Common causes of dizziness and nausea
Both dizziness and nausea have a wide range of causes. If you’ve been feeling sick and lightheaded, here are a few of the most common causes.
Inner ear problems
Your inner ear helps to regulate your balance. When there’s a problem with your inner ear, it can cause symptoms like dizziness or vertigo.
There are 2 common conditions that affect your inner ear:
- labyrinthitis, or vestibular neuritis – an infection in your inner ear that affects your balance. It often follows after you’ve had a respiratory tract infection like a cold. It can cause dizziness with nausea and sometimes vomiting. You might also have hearing loss or ringing in your ears (tinnitus).
- benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) – a build up of tiny fragments of loose chalk crystals in your inner ear. It can cause intense episodes of vertigo when you move your head in certain directions. They tend to last around 20-30 seconds and go away when you keep your head still. You may get nausea or vomiting that can last up to an hour or so after the vertigo stops. These episodes tend to come and go in
Nausea and dizziness are 2 common symptoms you might have during pregnancy. They’re usually caused by hormonal changes that your body goes through. You may feel lightheaded and faint because your brain’s not getting enough oxygen via your blood supply. It can feel worse when you stand up quickly or lie on your back. Sometimes you might also feel dizzy if you’re anaemic, or have low blood pressure. Occasionally it can also be caused by something more serious like an ectopic pregnancy if you also have tummy pain or vaginal bleeding. This is a medical emergency, so go to hospital if you have these symptoms.
If you’ve got morning sickness (feeling sick or being sick during pregnancy), it may mean you’re not drinking enough fluids. This can cause you to become dehydrated, which can also make you feel dizzy or faint. Morning sickness usually gets better by the 20th week of pregnancy, but you may still feel dizzy for other reasons as you get closer to your due date.
If you feel dizzy and nauseous and you have other symptoms like vomiting, diarrhoea or stomach cramps, you may have gastroenteritis. Also known as a stomach or tummy bug, it’s a common gut infection that’s usually caused by a virus or bacteria.
If you feel dizzy, particularly when you stand up, it can be a sign that you’re dehydrated. This can happen if you lose too much fluid from being sick or having diarrhoea.
The bacteria and viruses that cause gastroenteritis are often caught from close contact with an infected person or by eating contaminated food.
Motion sickness is a feeling you might experience when travelling in a car, boat, plane or train – or even on a fairground ride. It’s also known as travel sickness, car sickness or sea sickness and can make you feel nauseous and dizzy. The movement of the vehicle can result in confusing messages being sent to your brain – your inner ear thinks you’re moving, but your eyes might tell your brain that you’re not. This can make you feel unwell. Other symptoms can include:
- feeling cold or weak
- looking pale
- having more saliva in your mouth
Motion sickness is more common in women than in men. It can also be common in children, who often grow out of it.
Nerve and brain issues (neurological issues)
Certain problems with your nervous system can sometimes bring on dizziness and sickness at the same time. These may include:
- migraines – some types of migraines called vestibular migraines can cause dizziness with nausea. If you have a migraine, you may notice additional symptoms, like a headache and sensitivity to light and sound
- concussion – if you’ve recently had a bump or blow to the head, you may develop concussion. If this happens, not only may you feel sick and dizzy, but you may also have a headache and have trouble remembering things. A concussion can be a medical emergency, but it’s not always easy to spot, so it’s best to see a doctor if you’ve recently hurt your head
- brain tumour – while rare, a brain tumour can cause dizziness and nausea. It can also lead to other symptoms like headaches, memory problems, fits (seizures) and changes in your behaviour
- stroke – it’s rare but a stroke at the back or base of your brain can cause vertigo and nausea. It comes on suddenly and you’ll usually have other symptoms with it, like double vision, problems talking, numbness in parts of your body or trouble moving your arms or legs (weakness). This is a medical emergency, so go to hospital or call an ambulance immediately if you have any of these symptoms
There are lots of other less common causes of nausea and dizziness together. These can include anxiety or a panic attack, carbon monoxide poisoning, or taking medication that lowers your blood sugar, such as insulin or other medicines for diabetes. So if you’re not sure what’s causing your symptoms, or they’re not getting better, you should see a doctor.
When to see a doctor about dizziness and nausea
Go to a hospital or call an ambulance if you feel dizzy and nauseous, and you:
- think you may have swallowed something poisonous
- keep being sick (vomiting) and can’t keep fluids down
- have a bad headache and you’re being sick
- have bloody diarrhoea or you’re bleeding a lot from your bottom
- are vomiting blood, or if your vomit is bright green or looks like ground coffee
- have a stiff neck, pain when looking at bright lights or a really bad headache that started suddenly
- have recently injured your head and you feel confused or less alert than usual, or you are being sick, have clear fluid coming from your nose or ears, bleeding from your ears or have a black eye without having an eye injury
- hit your head in a serious accident, like a car crash
- have a fit (seizure)
- have a swollen tummy or bad tummy pain
- have chest pain or pain that spreads to your arms, back, neck or jaw
- have shortness of breath
- have suddenly lost your hearing in 1 ear
- have trouble moving your arms, legs or hands (weakness)
- have trouble speaking or understanding other people
- have drooping on one side of your face
- have loss of, blurred or double vision
- suddenly have trouble swallowing
- suddenly have very bad vertigo
- are fainting
- are pregnant and have tummy pain or vaginal bleeding
You should also see a doctor as soon as possible if you’ve got nausea and dizziness, and:
- they’re getting worse or not getting better
- you have been vomiting for more than 2 days or have had diarrhoea for longer than a week
- you injured your head and the symptoms have lasted longer than 2 weeks
Treatment for nausea and dizziness
Inner ear problems
If you have symptoms of vertigo, you should see a doctor to rule out any more serious causes.
If you have labyrinthitis or vestibular neuritis you’ll usually feel better within a few weeks without any treatment. The symptoms often ease within a few days, but it might take 2-6 weeks before you get your balance back – occasionally it can take a bit longer.
Treatments may include:
- antihistamines or motion sickness medication to help with your symptoms. They can be taken as a tablet that dissolves under your tongue or, if you are vomiting, you may be offered an injection. These should only be taken for as long as you really need them
- antibiotics – these are not usually needed as inner ear problems are most often caused by a viral infection. However, if your doctor suspects a bacterial infection, they may recommend antibiotics
If you have BPPV, your symptoms will usually clear away in a few weeks or months as the small chalk crystals in your inner ear move away or dissolve. Things that may help include:
- trying to avoid head movements that trigger your vertigo
- the Epley manoeuvre – your doctor may be able to perform a series of head movements to dislodge the chalk crystals and resolve your symptoms
- Brandt-Daroff exercises – these head movements might be recommended for you to do at home
- surgery – it’s very rare to need surgery for BPPV, but if your symptoms persist for months or years, you may be able to have surgery to remove part of your inner ear
Other things you can do to help with vertigo and nausea include:
- lying still in a dark room
- moving your head carefully and slowly
- sitting down straight away if you feel dizzy
- using a walking stick to stop you falling
- turning the lights on if you get up at night
- sleeping with your head slightly raised on at least 2 pillows
- getting out of bed slowly and sitting on the edge for a few minutes before standing up
- trying to relax to avoid anxiety making it worse
- squatting rather than bending to pick things up
- trying not to stretch your neck – for example, when reaching up high
Try to rest as much as you can and follow these general tips for managing nausea. Often, the nausea caused by morning sickness gets better on its own later in your pregnancy.
Some things you can try to stop you feeling dizzy include:
- trying to get up slowly after sitting or lying down
- trying to find a seat quickly, or lying down, if you feel faint when standing up
- turning onto your side if you feel faint when lying on your back
Talk to your midwife or doctor if your dizziness is not getting better after trying these tips. They may want to do a few tests to find out if there’s anything else causing it.
There are plenty of things you can try to stop and motion sickness. You can try to:
- reduce the motion your body feels – try sitting in the front of your car or in the middle of a boat
- make sure you don’t read, watch or use electronic devices while travelling
- avoid looking at moving objects like cars or waves – instead, look straight ahead at a fixed point like the horizon
- breathe fresh air – open a window if you can
- close your eyes and breathe slowly, focusing only on your breathing
- distract yourself by talking or listening to music
- break up long journeys – get some fresh air, drink water or take a walk
- eat ginger – in tablet form, as a biscuit or drink it in tea
- avoid heavy meals, spicy foods and alcohol just before or during travel
If these things aren’t helping, you can speak to a pharmacist or a doctor for other remedies that may help prevent and treat motion sickness, such as:
- anti-sickness tablets or patches
- acupressure bands
- drink plenty of water or squash to stay well hydrated
- get lots of rest
- eat when you feel you can
- take simple painkillers to manage a fever, headache or tummy pain – speak to your pharmacist or doctor for guidance on how to safely use these medicines
You should usually start to feel better within a week. However, if you’re feeling dizzy, it could be a sign that you’re dehydrated and need treatment from a doctor or hospital. This may include receiving fluids via a drip if you’re being sick a lot, if you can’t keep water down or if you’re experiencing a lot of diarrhoea.
Nerve and brain issues (neurological problems)
If a condition related to your brain or nervous system is causing your symptoms, treating the condition may help to improve nausea and vomiting. This may involve resting and taking painkillers if you have a concussion, self-care and medication for conditions like migraines, and medication, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and/or surgery for brain tumours.
A stroke is a medical emergency and needs urgent treatment in a hospital as soon as possible. Treatment for stroke – usually clot-busting medication – works best within about 4 hours of your symptoms starting.
A doctor will recommend the most appropriate treatment for your symptoms and their cause.
How long does it take for nausea and dizziness to get better?
There are many reasons why you might have nausea and dizziness at the same time. Sometimes the problem will get better by itself in a few days or weeks if you try some self-care measures. It isn’t always easy to tell what’s causing your symptoms, so see a doctor if they don’t get better with self-care, if you’re worried or if you have any of the symptoms listed in the ‘When to see a doctor’ section above.
The time it takes for your symptoms to get better usually depends on the cause and on the treatments your doctor recommends.
Your health questions answered
What should I eat when dizzy and nauseous?
You might feel like you don’t want to eat or drink anything when you feel dizzy and sick, but it’s important to drink plenty of fluids to avoid getting dehydrated. If you have gastroenteritis, you should eat when you feel you can – you don’t need to avoid particular foods, but you might want to try eating small amounts or plain foods. If you have motion sickness, eating ginger may help, as can avoiding heavy meals or spicy foods just before you travel.
What is the fastest way to get rid of dizziness and nausea?
Sometimes medication will help quickly, but often only for a short time. If you have BPPV, for example, a doctor may be able to help with an Epley manoeuvre. This may result in your symptoms disappearing relatively quickly. Other conditions may go away by themselves in a few days, but some last longer and need more treatment.
- many things can cause nausea and dizziness at the same time, including inner ear problems, gastroenteritis, motion sickness and pregnancy
- nausea and dizziness aren’t usually signs of serious illness, but they can sometimes suggest that you have an underlying condition that needs urgent medical attention
- the best treatment for nausea and dizziness depends on the underlying cause of the symptoms – some problems may get better by themselves, while others may need treatment from a doctor
- see a doctor if you have nausea and dizziness that comes on very suddenly, if it’s accompanied by other symptoms, doesn’t get better over time or if you’re worried about your symptoms