Dizziness is a feeling of being unsteady, but can refer to different sensations including vertigo, feeling faint and problems with balance. This leaflet gives a brief overview of the causes of dizziness. There are separate, more detailed leaflets for some of the conditions listed.
What is dizziness?
Ah, that is the million dollar question. "Feeling dizzy" means different things to different people. Or even to the same person in different situations. Most commonly it is used to describe one of the following sensations:
- Vertigo, which is a feeling of spinning around.
- Feeling faint or light-headed, as if about to pass out or collapse.
- Loss of normal balance, ie being unsteady but without feeling faint or whirly.
When you go to a doctor saying you feel "dizzy", you are giving them a real challenge. Because the word "dizzy" describes several symptoms, and a vast number of conditions can cause dizziness. Your doctor should, however, be able to narrow it down, by finding out exactly what you personally mean by dizziness, and asking about other symptoms.
Why am I dizzy?
Well, again, it is going to depend on what you personally mean by dizziness. If you have vertigo, ie you feel as if you or the world around you is spinning, then the most common causes are inner ear problems. Other than confusing your inner ear balance system by riding on a playground roundabout or the teacups ride at the fair, or by turning a load of pirouettes, then causes include:
- An infection in the region of the inner ear, such as labyrinthitis or vestibular neuritis.
- Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), a condition where certain movements of your head set off a spinning sensation.
- Ménière's disease.
Read more about these conditions and other causes of vertigo.
If, by dizziness, you mean feeling faint or light-headed, then conditions originating anywhere in your body may be the cause. For example:
- Having a high temperature (fever).
- Very hot weather.
- Side-effects of certain medicines.
- Panic attacks.
- Problems with your heart rate - for example, your heart going too fast, too slow or not regularly.
- Low iron levels (and other causes of anaemia).
- A drop in your blood pressure when you stand up (orthostatic hypotension).
Learn more about conditions which cause the type of dizziness where you feel faint or light-headed.
And if you mean the type of dizziness where you don't feel you or the room are spinning and you don't feel faint, but you just feel unbalanced, then there are yet more possible causes. These also can start from problems of various body organs and systems, such as your ear, your brain, your nervous system and your general state of health. Alcohol, street drugs and various medicines can also make you feel off-balance, and affect different people differently.
Find out more about how normal balance is achieved, and conditions which can cause loss of balance.
Is a cause always found?
With this number of possibilities, it isn't all that surprising that a cause is not always found. Indeed, it is estimated that in one out of every five people who go to the doctor complaining of dizziness, a cause is never found. Fortunately even if the cause hasn't been found, the symptom of dizziness often settles in time.
Should I worry about dizziness?Dizziness due to a temporary infection is usually not harmful. See your doctor if you have:
If you are getting recurring dizzy spells, or a constant dizziness for which there is no obvious cause, then see your doctor. If you have dizziness with other alarming symptoms (such as sudden weakness in your arms, legs or face muscles, or chest pain or feeling very breathless), then call an ambulance or see a doctor urgently.
Learn more about seeing a doctor if you have dizziness.
Will I need tests?
It depends. Your doctor will in many cases be able to work out the cause from listening to you explain your symptoms, and from examining you. There may be some special examination techniques used which examine your balance system. In other cases, more tests might be needed, which could include blood tests or a scan such as an MRI scan.
Read more about investigation of dizziness.
Is there any treatment?
The treatment you will have will depend on the cause. If the cause is found and treated, then the dizziness will settle. There are medicines which help with the vertigo type of dizziness, such as prochlorperazine or cinnarizine. Sometimes these are used to help the dizziness while waiting for a condition to settle (such as labyrinthitis, which usually gets better on its own over time). In other cases it is used to help you feel better while you await tests, or if a cause hasn't been found.
Read more about the treatment of dizziness.
What is vertigo?
Vertigo is dizziness with a spinning sensation. If you have vertigo you feel as if the world is spinning around you and you feel very unsteady. Often you will also feel sick or be sick (vomit). Vertigo tends to be eased by lying down flat, and made worse by sitting up or moving. See also the separate leaflet called Vertigo and How to Treat It.
Vertigo is often a problem of the inner ear, so it is helpful to understand what the inner ear is made up of. The inner ear includes the cochlea, vestibule and semicircular canals in which there is a system of narrow fluid-filled channels called the labyrinth. The cochlea is concerned with hearing. The three semicircular canals help to control balance and posture. Head movements are sensed because when you move your head, the fluid in the labyrinth within the semicircular canals moves too. The movement of the fluid moves tiny fine hairs that are on the inside lining of the labyrinth. When the hairs move, this triggers messages to be sent to the brain via a nerve called the vestibular nerve. This gives the brain information about the movement and position of your head, even when your eyes are closed.
What are the possible causes of vertigo?
Vertigo is most commonly caused by a problem in one of the inner ears when the labyrinth or vestibular nerve is inflamed, damaged, or not working properly. If the labyrinth or vestibular nerve sends the brain too many, too few, or wrong messages, and conflicts with other messages from the other ear, eyes, or body, the brain gets confused, resulting in vertigo.
There are various inner ear problems that can cause vertigo. These include the following:
Many people get vertigo for a short time if they spin around fast - for example, on some playground or fairground rides. Basically, the brain gets bombarded with nerve messages from the semicircular canals in the inner ears, due to the constantly changing position of the head. The brain can't cope with the constantly changing nerve messages. Symptoms usually settle soon after the spinning stops but, in some people, the symptoms can take several hours or longer to subside.
This is inflammation of the labyrinth in the inner ear. There are various causes. The most common is due to a viral infection (viral labyrinthitis). Typically, with viral labyrinthitis you develop vertigo, and often feel sick or vomit. You may have some mild hearing loss on the affected side too. You may also have other symptoms of a viral infection such as a sore throat, flu symptoms, or a cold. The vertigo can be intense and you often need to stay in bed until the condition eases. Symptoms of viral labyrinthitis can last anything from a few days to several weeks, and then usually clear completely. If symptoms last longer, or other symptoms develop in addition, then there may be a more serious cause of the labyrinthitis. See separate leaflet called Vestibular Neuritis and Labyrinthitis for more details.
This is similar to labyrinthitis but the inflammation is in the vestibular nerve coming from the inner ear rather than in the inner ear itself. Often it is impossible to tell the difference between vestibular neuritis and labyrinthitis. However, as with labyrinthitis, the common cause is thought to be a viral infection. Symptoms from this cause usually clear completely as the infection clears. See separate leaflet called Vestibular Neuritis and Labyrinthitis for more details.
Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV)
If you have BPPV you develop sudden episodes of vertigo that last just a few seconds or minutes. Each episode typically occurs when you move your head in a certain way. A common example is when you turn over in bed, or when you get up from bed in the morning. The vertigo is caused by a tiny fragment of solid material that has come loose inside the labyrinth. This moves within the fluid inside the labyrinth when you move your head in a certain way. It may stimulate the sensitive hairs inside the semicircular canal part of the labyrinth. This sends wrong messages to the brain about the position of your head, resulting in vertigo. See separate leaflet called Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo for more details.
This condition typically causes episodes of vertigo, hearing loss, and buzzing or ringing in your ear (tinnitus). The episodes can vary in severity and in how often they occur. Each episode can last from 20 minutes to several hours. Permanent hearing loss and tinnitus may eventually develop. It is thought that Ménière's disease is due to a build-up of fluid in the labyrinth from time to time. The build-up of fluid may increase the pressure within the labyrinth and cause swelling of the labyrinth, which leads to the symptoms. See separate leaflet called Ménière's disease for details.
Sometimes vertigo is due to a problem within the brain itself. This is sometimes called "central vertigo" (in contrast to "peripheral vertigo" due to one of the ear problems listed above). Examples of conditions that can cause central vertigo include the following:
Episodes of vertigo develop in some people who have migraine. These sometimes occur as part of the 'aura' that some people with migraine have before a headache develops. However, vertigo can also occur separately to headaches in some people who get migraines. The cause of migraine is thought to be due to changes in blood vessels in the brain and a similar mechanism may be the reason why vertigo develops. Each episode of vertigo due to migraine can last from several hours to several days. See separate leaflet called Migraine for more details.
An acoustic neuroma is a non-cancerous (benign) tumour that grows on the acoustic nerve. This nerve forms when the cochlear and vestibular nerve join up between the ear and the brain. It is a rare disorder but initial symptoms can include vertigo, hearing loss, and tinnitus. These are similar symptoms to Ménière's disease. However, unlike Ménière's disease which comes in episodes of symptoms, acoustic neuroma symptoms tend to be constant and get worse and worse. See separate leaflet called Acoustic Neuroma for more details.
Various conditions of the brain, blood vessels of the brain, and nerves can cause vertigo. For example, some people who have a stroke or multiple sclerosis develop vertigo. However, this will usually be in addition to other symptoms.
What is meant by this kind of dizziness?
People who feel faint often say they feel "light-headed" and feel as if they may collapse unless they sit or lie down. This is sometimes described as feeling dizzy. Most of us can remember times when we have felt like this. For example, when we have been ill with a high temperature (fever), very hungry, or very emotional. However, some people have repeated episodes of feeling faint without an obvious explanation such as a fever.
What are the possible causes of feeling faint?
Causes include the following:
This means your blood pressure drops when you sit up from lying, or when you stand up from sitting or lying. In particular, if you jump up out of bed after a night's sleep. The fall in blood pressure is just for a short time as the blood pressure quickly adjusts to your new posture. However, in some people the fainting feeling can be more severe and last for a few minutes. This problem tends to get more troublesome as you become older.
The main symptom of anaemia is tiredness. However, if you have anaemia you may not get sufficient oxygen to the brain. This can make you feel light-headed.
Arrhythmias and other heart problems
An arrhythmia is an abnormal heart rhythm. It occurs when the heart may suddenly beat too fast, too slowly, or in an abnormal way. There are various causes. One of the symptoms of an arrhythmia is to feel faint or light-headed as there may be a sudden decrease in blood supply to the brain as the arrhythmia develops. See separate leaflet called Abnormal Heart Rhythms (Arrhythmias) for more details.
Various other heart disorders may cause a reduced flow of blood to the brain and cause you to feel faint or light-headed.
In particular, if you have anxiety with panic attacks you can feel light-headed. This can get worse if you over-breathe (hyperventilate) due to the anxiety or panic attack.
Feeling faint and/or light-headed is sometimes a side-effect of some medicines. It is always worth reading the information leaflet that comes in the drug packet to check if dizziness is a recognised side-effect.
How do you normally keep your sense of steadiness and balance?
Your brain constantly receives nerve messages from various parts of the body to tell you where you are and what position you are in. The three main sources of these nerve messages are:
- Your eyes - what you look at helps your brain to tell what position you are in and how you are moving.
- Nerve messages from your skin, muscles and joints help your brain to tell the positions of your arms, legs and other parts of your body.
- Your inner ears. The inner ear includes the cochlea, vestibule and semicircular canals in which there is a system of narrow fluid-filled channels called the labyrinth. The cochlea is concerned with hearing. The three semicircular canals help to control balance and posture. Head movements are sensed because when you move your head, the fluid in the labyrinth within the semicircular canals moves too. The movement of the fluid moves tiny fine hairs that are on the inside lining of the labyrinth. When the hairs move, this triggers messages to be sent to the brain via a nerve called the vestibular nerve. This gives the brain information about the movement and position of your head, even when your eyes are closed.
To be free of dizziness and to have good balance, it is best to have all of these (eyes, nerve signals from the skin muscles and joints, and inner ears) working normally. However, if you shut your eyes, you will normally still have a good sense of balance and know the position of your head and other body parts. This is because of the nerve messages that are sent to your brain from your inner ears, and other parts of your body.
What is meant by dizziness due to balance problems?
In this type of dizziness you do not have vertigo and are not light-headed or feeling faint. However, you feel unsteady on your feet and feel as if you may fall over when you walk, due to unsteadiness.
What can cause loss of balance?
This can be caused by various conditions. These include the following:
Some inner ear conditions can cause balance problems without the spinning sensation of vertigo - for example, an inner ear injury.
Various problems in the brain, such as a stroke, or a brain tumour, can cause balance problems. These occur if the affected part of the brain is a part that helps to control posture and balance. There will usually be other symptoms too.
General frailty and/or being seriously ill with another illness may lead to loss of balance. You will usually have other symptoms in addition to problems with balance.
Alcohol and drugs
Do I need to see a doctor?
It is usually best to have an explanation for dizziness. If you have a prolonged episode of dizziness, or recurring episodes of dizziness and are not sure what is causing them, then it is wise to see a doctor. In particular, if you have other symptoms in addition to the dizziness, such as:
- Headache, especially if it is severe, or a different kind of headache to ones you usually get.
- Hearing or visual loss.
- Problems with speech.
- Weakness of arms or legs.
- Difficulty walking.
- Collapse, or periods of unconsciousness.
- Numbness in areas of your body.
- Chest pain.
- An abnormally slow or fast pulse.
- An irregular pulse.
- Any other symptom that you cannot explain.
If any of these symptoms have come on suddenly, see a doctor immediately.
What tests might I have for dizziness?
A doctor is likely to examine you. Sometimes the doctor can tell you the cause of the dizziness from your symptoms and the result of the examination. In some cases, various tests may be organised to find the cause of the dizziness.
Your doctor will firstly need to ask you some questions about the dizziness. Is it constant or in attacks? Is it the world-is-spinning type of dizziness or a loss of balance, or do you feel faint or light-headed? Do you have other symptoms with it, such as being sick, hearing problems, a ringing in the ear (dizziness), headaches, palpitations, etc? Does it come on in certain situations - for example, when you move your head from one side to the other? Are you taking any medicines?
The doctor will then need to examine you. What this involves will depend on the information gleaned from the answers above, but might include:
- Taking your temperature.
- Examining your ear.
- Examining your eyes and their movements.
- Checking your pulse and blood pressure.
- Checking your balance and co-ordination.
- Looking for any weakness in the muscles of your arms, legs or face.
- Tests which look for dizziness in certain positions or position changes.
Depending on what has been established from the above, further tests might be relevant. These will differ depending on which diagnosis is suspected, but might include:
- A hearing test.
- A blood test - for example, to test you for anaemia.
- A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan or a computerised tomography (CT) scan.
- Specialist tests for inner ear function and balance.
- Heart tests: a heart tracing (electrocardiogram, or ECG), a heart ultrasound scan (echocardiogram) or a heart monitor.
What is the treatment for dizziness?
The treatment depends on the cause. Your doctor will be able to advise you regarding this. It will entirely depend on the type of dizziness and what has caused it. For example:
- Labyrinthitis usually improves on its own over time.
- Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) can be cured by a series of manoeuvres tilting your head in certain ways to move debris in the semicircular canals of the inner ear.
- Dizziness caused by a problem with the heart rhythm or rate is treated by putting the heart rate right - for example, by medicines, a pacemaker or a procedure done directly on the heart.
- Dizziness caused by medication is usually easily solved by reducing the dose of, changing or stopping the medicine in question.
- Dizziness due to panic attacks or anxiety is solved by treating these conditions directly with talking treatments or medicines. Examples of possible treatments include cognitive behavioural therapy, beta-blocker medicines or antidepressant medicines.
Is there anything I can take for dizziness?
Sometimes you need a medicine for the symptom of dizziness. This might be while you wait for it to get better (for example, labyrinthitis) or while you are waiting for tests to find out the cause, or because you have a condition which can't easily be cured. For the vertigo type of dizziness, tablets called prochlorperazine or cinnarizine are often prescribed. These do not cure the underlying problem but they help you feel better until it goes away. These do not work so well for the light-headed/faint type of dizziness or for loss of balance.
Further reading & references
- Vertigo; NICE CKS, April 2010 (UK access only)
- Huh YE, Kim JS; Bedside evaluation of dizzy patients. J Clin Neurol. 2013 Oct;9(4):203-13. doi: 10.3988/jcn.2013.9.4.203. Epub 2013 Oct 31.
- Kaski D, Bronstein AM; Making a diagnosis in patients who present with vertigo. BMJ. 2012 Sep 3;345:e5809. doi: 10.1136/bmj.e5809.
- Post RE, Dickerson LM; Dizziness: a diagnostic approach. Am Fam Physician. 2010 Aug 15;82(4):361-8, 369.
- Kerber KA, Baloh RW; The evaluation of a patient with dizziness. Neurol Clin Pract. 2011 Dec;1(1):24-33.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other healthcare professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.
Dr Mary Harding
Dr Louise Newson