Introduction 

Vertigo is a symptom rather than a condition itself. It's the sensation that you, or the environment around you, is moving or spinning.

This feeling may be slight and barely noticeable, or it may be so severe that you find it difficult to keep your balance and do everyday tasks.

Attacks of vertigo can develop suddenly and last for a few seconds or they may last much longer. If you have severe vertigo, your symptoms may be constant and last for several days, making normal life very difficult.

Other symptoms associated with vertigo may include:

  • loss of balance, which can make it difficult to stand or walk
  • nausea (feeling sick) or vomiting (being sick)
  • lightheadedness

Seeking medical help

You should see you GP if you have recurrent or persistent signs of vertigo.

Your GP will ask about your symptoms and can carry out a simple examination to help determine if you have been experiencing vertigo. They may also refer you for further tests.

Read more about diagnosing vertigo.

What causes vertigo?

Vertigo is commonly caused by a problem with the balance mechanisms in the inner ear. However, it can also be caused by problems in certain parts of the brain.

Common causes of vertigo include:

  • benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) – where certain head movements trigger vertigo
  • Ménière's disease – a rare condition that affects the inner ear
  • migraines – severe headaches
  • vestibular neuronitis – inflammation of the vestibular nerve which runs into the inner ear and sends messages to the brain that help control balance

Depending on the condition causing vertigo, you may experience additional symptoms, such as a high temperature, tinnitus (ringing in your ears) and hearing loss.

Read more about the causes of vertigo.

How is vertigo treated?

Some cases of vertigo will improve over time without treatment, such as vertigo caused by a viral ear infection (for example, vestibular neuronitis). However, some people have repeated episodes for many months, or even years, such as those with Ménière's disease.

There are specific treatments for some causes of vertigo. BPPV is a condition where a simple corrective procedure (Epley's manoeuvre) can cure most cases.

There are also medicines that can help relieve most episodes of vertigo, such as prochlorperazine and some antihistamines. However, these are mainly useful in the early stages and should not be used long term.

Many people who have vertigo benefit from vestibular rehabilitation training (VRT) provided by a trained therapist. This helps the brain adapt to the confusing signals from your ear that cause vertigo, reducing the symptoms.

Read more about treating vertigo.

Self-care

Depending on what's causing your vertigo, your GP or the specialist treating you may be able to give you some advice to help relieve or prevent your symptoms.

You may be advised to:

  • do simple exercises to correct your symptoms
  • be careful while going down steps or escalators or in places with poor lighting to avoid falls
  • sleep with your head slightly raised on two or more pillows
  • get up slowly when getting out of bed and sit on the edge of the bed for a minute or so before standing
  • avoid bending down to pick up items
  • avoid extending your neck – for example, while reaching up to a high shelf
  • move your head carefully and slowly during daily activities, when your neck is extended and when your head is positioned horizontally, such as when lying flat
  • do exercises that trigger your vertigo so that your brain gets used to it and reduces the symptoms (do these only after care is taken that you do not fall and have support if needed)

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Fear of heights

The term vertigo is often incorrectly used to describe a fear of heights. The medical term for a fear of heights and the dizzy feeling associated with looking down from a high place is acrophobia.

Read more about phobias for information and advice.

Page last reviewed: 06/03/2013

Next review due: 06/03/2015