A runny nose, a scratchy throat, sneezing and coughing are the all-too-familiar cold symptoms that make us miserable. But for some cold-sufferers, exhaustion, fatigue and lightheadedness are also part of having a cold. There are several explanations for that, and a few ways to find relief.
Dehydration May Be the Problem
Americans battle about 1 billion new cases of the common cold every year, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). For those who get dizzy when they have a cold, dehydration may be a key factor, the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM) says. Lightheadedness can develop when the brain fails to get a sufficient amount of blood. That can occur when a cold-sufferer develops a fever, nausea or diarrhea, all of which drive dehydration. It can also happen when the most obvious causes of dehydration aren't even present.
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"Even if you don't have symptoms that cause obvious water loss—like a runny nose, sweating, vomiting or diarrhea — a cold or flu can dehydrate you in hidden ways," says Gregg Fonarow, MD, director of the Ahmanson-University of California Los Angeles Cardiomyopathy Center. "Just a slight rise in body temperature requires more water for metabolic reactions and breathing."
Even mild dehydration — meaning a loss of 1 to 2 percent of body weight — can trigger dizziness, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Why? Because dehydration can cause blood pressure to drop. And as the National Institutes of Health notes, a sudden dip in blood pressure can trigger lightheadedness.
Someone battling a cold shouldn't get up too quickly from a lying or sitting position in order to avoid a sudden change in blood pressure that might trigger a dizzy spell. It's also important to consume a lot of fluids to prevent both dehydration and lightheadedness.
Read more: 5 Uncommon Ways to Fend Off Cold and Flu
When Dizziness May Be Serious
NIH experts stress that most bouts of dizziness are not overly serious. The majority of cases resolve on their own. But some people with a cold do experience a relatively rare but more debilitating form of balance trouble called labyrinthitis, says the NLM.
A condition characterized by the swelling and irritation of the inner ear, "labyrinthitis is usually caused by a viral infection such as the common cold or flu," says Dr. Fonarow.
The infection can trigger nausea, vomiting, hearing loss, ringing in your ear (tinnitus) and sometimes a high temperature and ear pain, he adds. But it can also trigger vertigo — which, unlike dizziness, has the disorienting effect of making a person feel as if the room is actually spinning. Cold-related cases of vertigo are typically short-lived, and antihistamines are effective at easing symptoms.
And although it's an uncommon side effect, dizziness can be a sign of ibuprofen overdose, says the NLM. If you're taking this over-the-counter medication to alleviate the aches and pains of the common cold, be sure to read the label carefully so that you're not taking too much, and talk to your doctor if you experience this symptom.
Read more: Causes of Stomach Pain, Nausea and Dizziness
What You Can Do to Feel Better
When your body is fighting off a cold, one of the best things you can do is get plenty of rest, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That might not always be as easy as it sounds, given that coughing and other respiratory symptoms that accompany colds can interfere with sleep and compound feelings of fatigue. And for some, work and family responsibilities don't stop for a cold, making it difficult to get proper time to recover.
If your cold has triggered labyrinthritis, be sure to follow your doctor's instructions. Rest is best for managing dizziness or vertigo, says NLM. So if that means taking time off work to get much-needed sleep, it may be worth the sacrifice for your health.
- U.S. National Institutes of Health: "Understanding a Common Cold Virus"
- U.S. National Institutes of Health: "Dizziness Can Be A Drag"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Dizziness"
- American Heart Association: "Low Blood Pressure — When Blood Pressure Is Too Low"
- NLM: "Labyrinthritis"
- NLM: "Ibuprofen"
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Common Cold"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.