Despite your best prevention intentions and a yearly influenza shot, sometimes the flu finds you. The influenza virus can cause symptoms that send you running for cover, like fever, chills, sneezing, muscle aches, fatigue and sometimes dizziness, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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Here's why flu dizziness can be a concern.
What Causes Flu Dizziness?
"The main cause of flu dizziness is dehydration," says Ian McKeag, MD, a family medicine physician at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "Some people with the flu have vomiting and diarrhea, which both cause a lot of fluid loss. In addition, if you're experiencing vomiting from the flu, then you're not likely eating or drinking a lot of fluids to replace what was lost."
Fever, another common flu symptom, can also contribute to fluid loss and dehydration. People who have a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher lose fluid through their skin and breathe at a much higher rate than people who are healthy, often because rates of breathing and sweating are elevated during the flu, according to Dr. McKeag.
When your body gets dehydrated, this can lead to a drop in blood pressure with sitting up or standing known as orthostatic hypotension. "This means that people lose the ability to cope with gravitational differences, or the change from a lying down or seated position to a standing position," explains Dr. McKeag. "If dehydration progresses even further, dizziness can happen even without any positional changes."
Complications of the flu, such as pneumonia, a sinus infection or an ear infection, can also contribute to dizziness, says David Cutler, MD, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. "Identifying any associated infection when a patient has the flu is very important in determining the cause of the dizziness and correcting it," he adds.
Who Gets Flu Dizziness?
Although dizziness and other complications from the flu can happen to anyone, some people are more vulnerable than others. According to Mayo Clinic, these include young children, the elderly, pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems and people with chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease. They're all at higher risk and should definitely see a doctor when flu symptoms strike.
People taking certain medications while having the flu may also experience dizziness, says Dr. McKeag. For example, some blood pressure medications, especially diuretics, can lead to dizziness when taken by someone with the flu.
The reason? "Certain blood pressure medications actively pull water out of the body," he explains. "Any medication that is a diuretic — something that's making you urinate extra fluid out of the body — can lead to dehydration quickly, which can cause feelings of dizziness."
Taking some types of antihistamines or anti-allergy medications for seasonal allergies may also cause you to feel dizzy when you also have the flu, Dr. McKeag says. This can happen especially if sedation or drowsiness is listed as a side effect.
How to Handle the Dizziness
If your head is spinning from all of this information, here's the bottom line: Dizziness from the flu may not be harmful if it's short-term, especially if you've already seen a doctor and you've been diagnosed with the flu, says Dr. McKeag. However, he adds, it may be a cause for concern in other cases.
"If your dizziness is something that hasn't been checked out by a doctor yet, or if it's lasting longer than 10 to 15 seconds, I think that definitely warrants a doctor's visit that day, especially in children, the elderly or any other people who are prone to complications from the flu," warns Dr. McKeag.
To avoid feeling dizzy from the flu, it's important to stay hydrated. Fever reducers like acetaminophen, ibuprofen and aspirin, as well as cool compresses and fans, can help, says Dr. Cutler. "But if serious temperature elevation persists despite these measures, then medical treatment must be sought to reduce a dangerous temperature elevation," he adds.
If you're unsure whether what you're feeling is normal, it's best to contact your doctor with any concerns related to flu dizziness.
Is This an Emergency?
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Flu Symptoms & Complications"
- Mayo Clinic: "Flu Symptoms: Should I See My Doctor?"
- Ian McKeag, MD, family medicine physician, University of Alabama, Birmingham
- David Cutler, MD, family medicine physician, Saint John’s Health Center, Santa Monica, California