Can Allergies Make You Dizzy?
There are many causes of dizziness, and it can be a sign of an underlying condition like allergies.
Allergies and dizziness 101
Itchy and watery eyes, coughing, and running noses are often signs of allergies. But dizziness? It’s actually a more common allergy symptom than you think.
Thomas Chacko, MD, an Atlanta-based board-certified allergist, and immunologist, says many things can trigger dizziness, including allergies.
“My goal is if we can treat the allergies and decrease the allergic inflammation, the symptoms of dizziness may improve,” explains Dr. Chacko, who served as president of the Georgia Allergy, Asthma Immunology Society.
The issues can be complex when dealing with dizziness, he says, and finding the cause and cure usually involves some work with your doctor.
Here’s what you need to know about allergies and dizziness, including treatments and when to see your doctor.
A primer on allergies
An allergic reaction occurs when your body reacts to a foreign substance, such as pollen spores or dust mites. These substances are not harmful to most people, but if you have an allergy, your body launches a full-on attack.
“The [problem] is the allergen is not an infection that requires fighting, but an irritant that should be ignored,” explains James R. Haden, MD, president of the Asthma and Allergy Clinic of Fort Worth, Texas.
The immune system unleashes antibodies and histamines that cause inflammation, sneezing, coughing, and the general misery that follows.
About 50 million people in the United States have allergies. That’s about one in every seven people, according to the American College of Asthma, Allergies and Immunology.
The link between allergies, asthma, and dizziness
If your dizzy spells are seasonal, then environmental allergens may be in play. Pollen peaks in the spring and fall, so if your dizziness follows that pattern it’s could be allergy-related.
“When a patient comes to me with dizziness, allergies are considered,” says Jennifer Derebery, MD, a physician at the House Ear Clinic in Los Angeles, California. “We specifically want to know if there is a relationship to season, time of year, and association with other symptoms.”
She notes that asthma is tied to allergens, so “coexisting asthma” with dizziness points to allergies as a source.
Even if your dizziness does not follow a seasonal pattern, it may still have an allergic link.
“Sometimes you have allergies to perennial (year-round) allergens that you may not even know, since your symptoms are year-round,” says Dr. Chacko.
Year-round triggers could be pets, dust mites, molds, or other substances constantly around you which could be the source of your dizziness.
Regardless of the allergens, the inflammation created during an allergic reaction impacts all your body systems, says Dr. Derebery, who is a past president of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.
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Can allergies make you dizzy?
You may think your feet and legs keep you balanced, but it’s actually the ears—specifically the inner ears—that work to keep you upright.
Allergies can cause swelling in the eustachian tubes, which normally drain fluid away from the middle ear. The buildup creates a pressure imbalance in the ears that can lead to dizziness.
The inner ear contains the vestibular system, which sends the brain information about balance and motion. Allergies can cause parts of your inner ear to become inflamed or swollen, disrupting their function.
“Headache and dizziness may be symptoms of an inner ear balance [problem] which may be caused by or associated with allergies,” Dr. Derebery says.
An imbalance in the inner ear may also indicate a vestibular migraine. This is a severe headache causing unsteadiness or dizziness, and could cause vertigo.
Dizziness vs. vertigo
Although some people use the terms interchangeably, Dr. Derebery explains that vertigo and dizziness are not the same thing.
Dizziness is the “wastebasket” of multiple symptoms such as foggy thinking, imbalance, feeling of drunkenness, stumbling. It’s a general off-balance-type feeling that may have nothing to do with the inner ear, she says.
Vertigo is a chronic condition that gives you the perception of motion, even when you are not moving.
“Vertigo is in the inner ear where you have either a sense of spinning, or a sense the environment is spinning,” she explains.
Intense headaches, nausea, and vomiting are signs of vertigo.
“A classic [vertigo] attack lasts a minimum of 20 minutes to 12 hours because Mother Nature won’t let us go on longer,” says Dr. Derebery.
Vertigo is frequently misdiagnosed, and patients can be treated for some other disorder.
People with vertigo may also have Meniere’s disease, an inner ear disorder that can lead to chronic and often debilitating symptoms. In most cases, Meniere’s disease affects only one ear.
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) estimates that 615,000 people in the United States have Meniere’s disease. It most likely occurs in people in their 40s and 50s, and women are more affected.
The cause of Meniere’s disease is unknown. Still, scientists believe it could be caused by changes in the fluid in tubes of the inner ear, autoimmune disease, genetics, head trauma, tumors, or possibly allergies.
Treatment for dizziness
Dizziness, including vertigo, affects 15 to 20 percent of adults yearly based on population studies. It is a common complaint that accounts for over three million emergency department visits annually.
If the dizziness is tied to allergies, immunotherapy (allergy shots or drops) can help desensitize you to their impact, explains Dr. Chacko, who served on a national panel to create parameters for immunotherapy.
Dr. Derebery says dizziness can also be tied to low blood pressure, dehydration, glucose levels, hunger, or a variety of other issues that can be temporary conditions.
Sitting down, drinking water, or eating something may make the dizziness sensation go away.
There are no “cures” for allergy-related dizziness, other than mitigating or reducing the allergic reactions causing it.
“Most of the medications we use to ‘treat’ dizziness symptoms are sedating antihistamines developed to treat allergic symptoms,” says Dr. Derebery.
These medications can turn off or slow the body’s release of histamines, causing the inflammation and triggering the allergic reaction.
Common prescription allergy medications that are used to treat motion sickness include meclizine, dimenhydrinate (Dramamine), and promethazine. Over-the-counter allergy medications include cetirizine (Zyrtec), fexofenadine (Allegra) or loratadine (Claritin).
Over-the-counter steroid nose sprays, like fluticasone (Flonase) or budesonide (Rhinocort), can also be helpful with nasal symptoms.
For vertigo, allergy medications and nose sprays can’t reach the inner ear where the problem lies, according to Dr. Derebery. So they are of little help.
Meclizine and benzodiazepine prescription drugs, like diazepam (Valium), may help manage the symptoms, as can lifestyle changes and possibly surgery.
Vertigo often subsides on its own, and changes in body position can help. Physical therapists can design a plan of maneuvers and exercises to perform when vertigo occurs.
When is dizziness a serious health concern
Temporary or occasional bouts of dizziness are usually a signal to slow down and wait for the “fog” to clear. If it persists, or becomes more frequent, seek medical help, advises Dr. Chacko.
But for those who have vertigo, it can be hazardous for themselves and others.
It’s not the affliction itself, says Dr. Derebery, but the potential impact. She tells her patients to give up scuba diving permanently, and be cautious when driving, climbing ladders, or any activity that could be dangerous should vertigo occur.
“The effect of vertigo is not just the spinning which causes you to lose your balance,” she says. “It’s that your body cannot sense gravity so you can fall suddenly.”
She adds that vertigo is a symptom of an inner ear issue. If it persists longer than 24 hours there may be something else going on in the brain that must be addressed.
Brain scans and other assessments can look for medical issues that could be the source of persistent dizziness or vertigo.
- Thomas Chacko, MD, Chacko Allergy, Asthma and Sinus Center. Atlanta, Ga
- Jennifer Derebery, MD, Board of Directors at House Ear Institute. Los Angeles, Calif
- James Jaden, MD, Founder, Asthma and Allergy Clinic of Fort Worth. Fort Worth, Texas
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: "Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo"
- American College of Asthma, Allergies and Immunology.
- National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders