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Common questions about dizziness

What is dizziness?

“Dizziness” is a general term to explain the feeling we have when there is something wrong with our sense of balance.

Many people who experience dizziness find it difficult to explain exactly how it makes them feel. For example, some people who feel dizzy, light-headed, giddy or off-balance describe the feeling as if they, or their surroundings, are spinning around. Doctors use the term vertigo (see below) to describe this spinning, revolving form of dizziness.

Other people describe the feeling as if they were walking on a mattress or walking on a soft surface like cotton wool. Some people describe it as similar to being tipsy or drunk. Others describe feeling “wobbly”, as if they were on a merry-go-round or on a boat on choppy water.

What is vertigo?

Vertigo is a specific type of dizziness. It is the medical term for the form of dizziness that involves a person having a strong sense that they, or their surroundings, are moving when they are standing still. The sense of movement has a spinning, swaying or revolving nature to it. Less commonly, people might feel as if they are being pushed forward or as if they are falling.

Vertigo is not a fear of heights. However, some people might experience the symptoms of vertigo when looking down from a great height.

Other symptoms that may come alongside vertigo are feeling sick or being sick, dizziness and loss of balance. 

Is dizziness a disease?

No. Dizziness and vertigo are not diseases in themselves. They are symptoms of a distinct condition or cause. There are many different conditions that can cause dizziness. In the same way, a cough is a symptom of many different possible conditions or causes. It might not always be possible to diagnose a specific cause of dizziness.

Is dizziness the sign of something serious?

Usually not. Dizziness and balance problems are quite common and something that many people will experience, especially as they get older. Fortunately, dizziness is rarely the symptom of a serious or life threatening condition.

What is the most common cause of dizziness?

Most cases of dizziness and vertigo are caused by problems with the balance systems located in the inner ear (the labyrinth). The widely-held belief that our sense of balance comes from the inner ear is largely true.

Who should I see if I am worried about dizziness?

You should see your GP in the first instance. He or she can refer you to hospital specialists, if necessary.

What can I do to ease dizziness in the short term? 

Dizziness can often be short-lived, and can ease on its own accord. For short term dizziness, these self-care tips may help:
  • Move slowly. When standing up from lying down or from a seated position, take the movement gradually
  • Keep hydrated. Drinking plenty of water can help prevent and relieve dizziness
  • Avoid caffeine and tobacco. These stimulants can make the dizziness worse
  • When out and about, avoid crowded spaces with lots of people moving around
  • Feelings of unsteadiness can often be resolved by looking at a fixed object in your near environment

When to contact your doctor or the emergency services (red flag symptoms)

You should call your doctor or the emergency services if your dizziness is accompanied by any of the following:

  • A new, different or severe headache
  • Falling or trouble walking
  • Fainting or collapsing
  • Vertigo
  • Chest pain
  • Hearing loss
  • Behavioural changes
  • Facial numbness, slurred speech or double vision

If you have dizziness or balance problems after a recent head trauma, you are also advised to contact your doctor or the emergency services.

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