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Vertigo (dizziness)

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Vertigo is the sensation that you are in motion, even when you are standing still, or that everything around you is moving. It feels similar to being on a boat, and can result in the same feeling of losing balance, nausea, and vomiting. The attack typically lasts from a few seconds to minutes but can last days. Effects range from minimal to severe enough to affect your daily life, but it's more than just dizziness.

Vertigo has nothing to do with a fear of heights. This is a popular misconception that started from the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name. Acrophobia means fear of heights, but it may cause a spinning sensation when looking down from a high place that is similar to some aspects of vertigo.

What are the causes of vertigo?

Vertigo can be caused by many conditions, the most common of which are:

  • Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV): BPPV is a common cause of vertigo and is often triggered by specific head movements. Small calcium particles in the inner ear can become dislodged and cause brief episodes of vertigo.
  • Meniere's Disease: This inner ear disorder involves a buildup of fluid in the inner ear, leading to episodes of vertigo, hearing loss, and ringing in the ears (tinnitus).
  • Vestibular Neuritis: Inflammation of the vestibular nerve, often viral in origin, can lead to sudden, severe vertigo.
  • Labyrinthitis: This condition involves inflammation of both the vestibular nerve and the cochlear nerve (responsible for hearing). It can cause vertigo along with hearing loss and ringing in the ears.
  • Migraines: Some individuals experience vertigo as a symptom of migraines, known as vestibular migraines. These migraines can cause intense headaches along with vertigo and other neurological symptoms.
  • Trauma: Trauma to the head, such as a concussion or injury to the inner ear structures, can lead to vertigo.
  • Motion Sickness: Sensitivity to motion, such as during car rides, boat trips, or flights, can lead to vertigo and nausea.
  • Infections: Infections affecting the inner ear, such as viral or bacterial infections, can result in vertigo. These can include conditions like herpes simplex virus or bacterial labyrinthitis.

How can I manage it myself?

If severe, try to avoid movements that might bring on the dizziness, like moving your head in certain directions. Avoid causing yourself any injury from falls by walking in good lighting. When walking, hang on to a rail or solid furniture if necessary.

Do not drive, and be aware of the signs of dizziness. Sitting down immediately will help alleviate the sensation. Also, take things slow and easy when getting out of bed or a chair.

Monitor your blood pressure and other lifestyle factors like your diet and hydration status. Eating foods rich in iron may help women who have heavy menstrual bleeding.

What will my doctor do?

Your doctor will take a detailed history of your symptoms. Depending on your history, they will examine various aspects of your body, from your heart to your ears or your nervous system. They will also take your blood pressure. There are many causes of vertigo, so the treatment will depend on what has been found.

They may recommend you do some exercises or prescribe some antihistamine medication such as prochlorperazine, which has anti-dizziness properties. If this does not improve symptoms, they may refer you for rehabilitation training or to a specialist for further investigation.

Can I drive with vertigo?

You should never drive when suffering from an acute attack of vertigo. Before you can drive, you should speak to your doctor if it is an acute case.

If you suffer from recurrent vertigo with symptoms, especially if you experience any dizziness that is sudden or disabling, then you may also be required to inform the Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) or equivalent local driving license issuing authority to get clarification that you are fit to drive.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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