Dizziness is a term we apply to feeling disoriented and unstable. It can be related to vertigo, difficulties with balance and feeling light-headed or faint. Feeling dizzy is often misinterpreted and it is important to see a doctor if symptoms of dizziness persist.
- Common causes of dizziness include having a fever and low blood sugar.
- Correct diagnosis is important in order to identify potentially severe neurological conditions
- Treatment depends on the cause. Medication to prevent vomiting (antiemetic medication) is commonly prescribed.
If you would like to consult one of our GPhC registered clinicians online, our online video consultation service is available between 9.30am-4.30pm, five days a week.
Vertigo manifests as a severe spinning sensation, and is usually related to a problem in the ears. This could be related to an infection such as labyrinthitis or vestibular neuritis, which is an infection of the inner ear. Other possible causes of vertigo include having a migraine and meniere's disease (a condition which entails more severe episodes of vertigo).
The light-headed feeling that makes someone feel as if they may collapse is often described as dizziness. It can be felt if you’re experiencing a fever, or if you’re feeling particularly hungry or your blood sugar levels are low.
It can also occur when the weather is particularly hot or when you stand up quickly having sat down for an extended period, as this can lead to your blood pressure dropping rapidly (orthostatic hypotension).
In terms of conditions that result in feeling faint, anaemia is one of the most common. Insufficient numbers of red blood cells in the body lacking in oxygen can cause lightheadedness.
An abnormal heart rhythm may also give rise to feeling faint, as there is a reduced blood supply to the brain. Anxiety attacks, which may entail the body going into ‘fight or flight’ mode, can also cause a sensation of light-headedness too.
In a healthy human body, your brain receives messages from your eyes and muscles, giving you spatial awareness. The inner ear also plays a crucial role in regulating your balance and posture. When you move your head, fluid in the labyrinth (a series of fluid-filled tubes) also moves and triggers messages to the brain about head position. When the labyrinth becomes infected, this process is disrupted, which causes difficulties with balance.
Balance issues are a form of dizziness in themselves and are not accompanied by lightheadedness and vertigo. They are often caused by nerve disorders such as multiple sclerosis or brain disorders such as a stroke.
Diagnosing the cause of dizziness
If you report symptoms of dizziness to a doctor, they will want to examine you and establish what exactly you’ve been experiencing. It’s likely that they will ask about what kind of dizziness you're feeling - is it lightheadedness, a loss of balance, or a spinning feeling?
They will also look to determine if there are any accompanying symptoms which could indicate a particular condition, and they may ask whether the dizziness manifests in certain situations. For instance, when you move your head in one direction, or if dizziness occurs when you feel anxious.
It’s likely that after asking a series of questions, a doctor will conduct a physical examination. This may take some time, and it’s important to establish if the infection is caused by an issue with the inner ear, which is potentially serious.
A clinician will examine the ear to look for signs of infection or any other potential causes of dizziness; they may perform a fistula test, which involves applying pressure to the canal. A doctor will then examine the eye for signs of nygasmus, which is a condition where the eye moves involuntarily, and is an indication of an issue with the inner ear.
A doctor will also want to check your blood pressure from both a sitting and standing position to see if there is a noticeable drop off in posture, which would indicate a postural hypotension problem.
To assess for symptoms of vertigo, a doctor will likely perform a dix-hallpike test. This involves lying back quickly with your head at 45 degrees to invoke vertigo symptoms. You may also be asked to walk up and down so a doctor can observe your gait, and whether there are any indications of balance issues.
Once these examinations have taken place, a doctor will usually have a good idea as to the cause of the dizziness, but in the event that they don’t, there are a few further tests which can be carried out. They may conduct a full blood count test for signs of anaemia, and an ECG to see if the heart is experiencing an arrhythmia (an irregular heartbeat).
How is dizziness treated?
Treatment for dizziness will vary depending on the underlying condition. For example, arrhythmia may require the use of a pacemaker. In some instances, no treatment will be needed, but medication may be necessary.
A condition such as labyrinthitis will improve over time and does not usually require treatment. You should refrain from drinking alcohol and you may find that avoiding brightly lit environments eases symptoms.
It may be that your current medication is causing dizziness; in which case, you should seek out an alternative. If anxiety is the root of the dizziness, cognitive behavioural therapy may change your behavioural patterns when you enter a situation that triggers the sensation.
Pharmacological treatments for symptoms of dizziness such as nausea, vomiting and sweating include antiemetics and calcium channel antagonists. Antiemetics limit the ear’s ability to sense motion, which reduces nausea, while calcium channel antagonists lower blood pressure by relaxing blood vessels, which increases blood supply to the brain.
If your dizziness is overwhelming and you would like to speak to a doctor, you can do so via our online video consultation service. Our GPhC-registered clinicians can give you advice about how to manage your dizziness symptoms and let you know whether you will need further treatment. They can also issue prescriptions and referrals to specialists, where suitable. They are available from 9.30am-4.30pm, Monday to Friday.
How long is it normal to have dizziness for?
Dizziness can occur for a variety of reasons, and it’s common amongst people with conditions such as anaemia. Anyone can develop dizziness, particularly in hot weather or during a fever.
Vertigo can last between 1-2 weeks, whereas lightheadedness may pass very quickly. If dizziness persists, you should contact your local GP, as it can be serious if there is a vestibular impairment.
Is a cough serious?
Dizziness is usually a symptom of a condition that can be treated, or it will pass of its own accord without medication.
However, in rare cases it can be an indication of a severe condition. Insufficient blood supply to the brain can cause dizziness and lead to a stroke.
Can I get treatment for a cough?
Treatment for dizziness often requires treating the underlying condition, but sometimes a doctor can prescribe medication to alleviate nausea symptoms.
Antiemetics such as hycosine and prochlorprezanine, and calcium-channel antagonists such as cinnarizine and cyclizine are potential treatment options.
How can I prevent dizziness?
It is not always possible to prevent dizziness; however, there are some basic measures that may help you alleviate the sensation.
It’s important to avoid any sudden movements or potential triggers such as caffeine or alcohol if you feel dizzy. Make sure you lie down when you feel light-headed or as if you’re spinning, and wait for it to pass.
Can I speak to a doctor about a cough online?
If you would like to speak to one of our GMC-registered clinicians online, you can use our video consultation service. They are available between 9.30am-4.30pm, five days a week, and can issue advice about how to avoid problems with dizziness and let you know whether you will need further treatment. Where appropriate, our clinicians can also provide prescriptions and referrals to specialists.