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 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
- feeling sick or being sick
Seeking medical help
You should see you GP if you have persistent signs of vertigo or it keeps coming back.
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and can carry out a simple examination to help determine some types of 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 way balance works in the inner ear, although it can also be caused by problems in certain parts of the brain.
Causes of vertigo may include:
- benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) – where certain head movements trigger vertigo
- migraines – severe headaches
- labyrinthitis – an inner ear infection
- vestibular neuronitis – inflammation of the vestibular nerve, which runs into the inner ear and sends messages to the brain that help to control balance
Depending on the condition causing vertigo, you may experience additional symptoms, such as a high temperature, ringing in your ears (tinnitus) and hearing loss.
Read more about the causes of vertigo
How is vertigo treated?
Some cases of vertigo improve over time, without treatment. 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. A series of simple head movements (known as the Epley manoeuvre) is used to treat BPPV.
Medicines, such as prochlorperazine and some antihistamines, can help in the early stages or most cases of vertigo.
Many people with vertigo also benefit from vestibular rehabilitation training (VRT), which is a series of exercises for people with dizziness and balance problems.
Read more about treating vertigo
Depending on what's causing your vertigo, there may be things you can do yourself to help relieve your symptoms. Your GP or the specialist treating you may advise you to:
- do simple exercises to correct your symptoms
- 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
- do exercises that trigger your vertigo, so your brain gets used to it and reduces the symptoms (do these only after making sure you won't fall, and have support if needed)
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".