What is vertigo?
Vertigo is a disorder of the vestibular system, which includes the parts of the brain and inner ear that help us maintain control of our balance and eye movements. Health disorders like an inner ear infection can cause vertigo, which leaves you feeling like the room is spinning or moving.
Vertigo is a form of dizziness. In addition to experiencing nonexistent movement in their environment, people with vertigo may also feel that they are being pulled to one side. Vertigo can be a side effect of other health problems that likely require treatment by a doctor.
Severe vertigo can get to the point where it becomes chronic and disruptive to your daily life. Around 40% of people over age 40 experience vertigo or some form of dizziness at some point in their lives.
Signs and symptoms of vertigo
Vertigo can cause physical symptoms such as:
- A feeling of vagueness or swimminess in your head
- Feeling as though you are going to faint
- Feeling unsteady or off balance
- Problems walking
- Rhythmic, jerking eye movements
People with vertigo can feel like they have been spinning around in a circle before stopping suddenly. This can lead to serious injury and even death if it comes on while you are driving a car or operating power tools.
Causes of vertigo
An inner ear infection is one cause of vertigo. The cause of the infection can be either a virus or some form of bacteria. You can come down with an ear infection that causes vertigo if you have a cold or the flu.
- Feeling like everything is spinning
- Hearing loss
- Difficulty staying upright or walking in a straight line
- Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears
- Feeling like you are sick
Labyrinthitis can come on suddenly and worsen as time goes on. Most symptoms, including vertigo, tend to get better after a few days. Most people recover control of their balance in about two to six weeks, though it may take longer for others. The following factors can increase your risk of developing labyrinthitis:
- High levels of stress
- A history of allergies
- Viral, respiratory, or ear infection
- Consuming a lot of alcohol
- Taking certain medications
You can also end up with vertigo because of health disorders that affect brain functions, such as:
- Low blood pressure
- Low blood sugar
- Anemia (a condition where you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen)
Here are some other common causes of vertigo:
Meniere’s disease is a disorder that affects the flow of fluids in the middle ear. The condition is often found in people between the ages of 20 and 50. In addition to vertigo, side effects experienced by those with Meniere’s disease include hearing loss and ringing in the ears.
Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV)
Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo is a balance disorder that’s typically triggered when you change your head position. The disorder develops when calcium particles called otoconia move from one part of the inner ear to another. This causes overstimulation of nerve receptors in your ear’s posterior canal, which leads to you feeling like the room is moving or spinning.
Vestibular neuronitis is an inflammation of the vestibular nerve, one of the cranial nerves (nerves of the brain) responsible for controlling balance. Bouts of vestibular neuronitis typically last around seven to 10 days, but you can continue having milder attacks a few weeks after the initial onset subsides. Most people experience:
- Rapid eye movements
You should make an appointment to see a doctor if you find yourself dealing with persistent signs of dizziness or vertigo. If these symptoms are severe and include excessive vomiting, you may want to visit an emergency room. Things to watch out for include:
- Fainting spells
- Problems speaking, hearing, or swallowing
- Difficulty moving one or more limbs
- Neck pain
If you decide to see a doctor, they will likely start with questions about your condition. They may ask about the details of your vertigo and other questions about your health history. They typically will proceed with a physical exam to check for health problems like an inner ear infection that could be causing your vertigo.
Doctors diagnosing vertigo often focus their attention on the ears and eyes. They may request other diagnostic tests to help them find out the cause of your vertigo.
Treatments for vertigo
Your doctor’s treatment plan for your vertigo will depend on the cause. If it is an inner ear infection causing your vertigo, they may prescribe medication to help clear it up. Your doctor may recommend that you try physical therapy to help with chronic vertigo. They may also recommend changes to your diet or refer you to an ear, nose, and throat specialist for further treatment.
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Merck Manual: "Dizziness and Vertigo."
Merck Manual: "Meniere Disease."
Merck Manual: "Vestibular Neuronitis."
National Health Service: "Labyrinthitis and vestibular neuritis."
Penn Medicine: "Labyrinthitis."
St. Thomas Medical Group: "Vertigo May Affect As Many As 40% of Adults Age 40+."
Vestibular Disorders Association (VEDA): "What Are the Symptoms of a Vestibular Disorder?"