Is Your Medication Making You Lightheaded?

Many drugs can cause this symptom. Consider strategies to manage the risks.

You’re taking a new prescription, and you’re feeling a little lightheaded. Are the two connected? It’s an important question, since many drugs are known to cause lightheadedness. And lightheadedness comes with a dangerous risk: falling.

“Just being older increases your risk for falls. If you add three or four medications — or even just one with a known side effect of lightheadedness — it increases risk even more,” notes Joanne Doyle Petrongolo, a pharmacist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

Recognize the Symptom

Lightheadedness can mean many things. You may think of it as feeling faint or about to pass out, off-balance, nauseated, confused, or weak. All of those symptoms fall under the umbrella term of “lightheadedness.”

But lightheadedness is not a sensation of the world moving or spinning around you. Such a sensation is vertigo, which occurs when the body’s sensory inputs (such as vision or sense of touch) send confusing messages to the brain. Vertigo is often associated with inner ear disorders.

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Lightheadedness can mean many things. You may think of it as feeling faint or about to pass out, off-balance, nauseated, confused, or weak. By fizkes/Shutterstock

Lightheadedness Culprits

Many medications commonly cause lightheadedness. Common offenders include

— antidepressants, such as fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), and amitriptyline (Elavil)
— antipsychotics, such as quetiapine (Seroquel) and olanzapine (Zyprexa)
— antiseizure drugs, such as gabapentin (Neurontin), which is often given to treat neuropathy or shingles pain
— blood pressure drugs, including diuretics such as hydrochlorothiazide (Hydrodiuril), ACE inhibitors such as lisinopril (Zestril), calcium-channel blockers such as diltiazem (Cardizem), and beta blockers such as metoprolol (Lopressor)
— diabetes drugs, such as glipizide (Glucotrol) and glyburide (Diabeta)
— pain medications, such as oxycodone (Oxycontin)
— sedatives, such as lorazepam (Ativan) and diazepam (Valium)
— sleep medications, such as zolpidem (Ambien)
— urological medications that work by relaxing bladder muscles, such as tamsulosin (Flomax), which is prescribed to help urine flow more easily, and oxybutynin (Ditropan), which is used to treat overactive bladder.

Why Do Some Drugs Cause Lightheadedness?

There are many reasons why medications cause lightheadedness.

Sometimes they simply work too well. In the case of diabetes drugs, your blood sugar may fall too low, which can cause lightheadedness. “And with some blood pressure medications, you may urinate a lot of fluid and become dehydrated, which lowers your blood pressure too much. Or the blood pressure drugs might drop your pressure when you stand up suddenly, causing you to feel temporarily lightheaded. Or the medicines may keep your blood pressure below normal all the time, not just when you stand up, which also can make you lightheaded,” Doyle Petrongolo says.

What You Can Do

Learn about the potential side effects of all your medications, and be on high alert if lightheadedness is a possibility. Jot down the day and time you take a pill and the side effects you experience: your record of those details can help your doctor determine if you need a change in your regimen.

“With blood pressure medications, antidepressants, antipsychotics, and antiseizeure medications, lightheadedness should subside after about a week or two,” Doyle Petrongolo says. “If it doesn’t, report it to your doctor. You may need a lower dose or a different medication.”

If a drug has a high likelihood of causing lightheadedness, Doyle Petrongolo says you may want to take it at night — so you don’t experience the symptom during the day. “And if you know a medication makes you lightheaded, don’t get up abruptly from a chair or bed. Give yourself a chance to get your bearings.”

Other tips include staying hydrated throughout the day and checking your blood pressure regularly with a home monitor. “If your blood pressure is normal, but on the low side of normal, or if it’s unusually low for you, give that information to your doctor,” Doyle Petrongolo says. “You may need a medication adjustment.”

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