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Dizziness and Vertigo

By Debara L. Tucci, MD, MS

Dizziness is an inexact term people often use to describe various related sensations, including

  • Faintness (feeling about to pass out)

  • Light-headedness

  • Feeling off balance or unsteady

  • A vague spaced-out or swimmy-headed feeling

For dizziness that occurs only on standing up, see Dizziness or Light-Headedness When Standing Up.

Vertigo is

  • A false sensation of movement

With vertigo, people usually feel that they, their environment, or both are spinning. The feeling is similar to that produced by the childhood game of spinning round and round, then suddenly stopping and feeling the surroundings spin. Occasionally, people simply feel pulled to one side. Vertigo is not a diagnosis—it is a description of a sensation.

People with dizziness or vertigo may also have nausea and vomiting, difficulty with balance, and/or trouble walking. Some people have a rhythmic jerking movement of the eyes (nystagmus) during an episode of vertigo.

Different people often use the terms “dizziness” and “vertigo” differently, perhaps because these sensations are hard to describe in words. Also, people may describe their sensations differently at different times. For example, the sensations might feel like light-headedness one time and like vertigo the next. Because of this inconsistency, many doctors prefer to consider the two symptoms together.

However they are described, dizziness and vertigo can be disturbing and even incapacitating, particularly when accompanied by nausea and vomiting. Symptoms cause particular problems for people doing an exacting or dangerous task, such as driving, flying, or operating heavy machinery.

Dizziness accounts for about 5 to 6% of doctor visits. It may occur at any age but becomes more common as people age. It affects about 40% of people older than 40 at some time. Dizziness may be temporary or chronic. Dizziness is considered chronic if it lasts more than a month. Chronic dizziness is more common among older people.

Did You Know...

  • About 95% of the time, dizziness, even if incapacitating, does not result from a serious disorder.

  • In older people, dizziness often does not have a single, obvious cause.

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