Dizziness and vertigo are often used interchangeably. However, these terms actually describe two different types of sensations.
Dizziness and vertigo can also have different causes. Because of this, it’s important to know how to tell the difference between the two.
In this article, we’ll explain how to distinguish between dizziness and vertigo. We’ll also look at what can cause these sensations, and when to see a doctor.
Dizziness generally describes a feeling of being off-balance. When you’re dizzy, moving can be difficult. You may stagger while you’re walking or feel like you’re going to fall.
Many people with vertigo will report dizziness as a symptom. However, vertigo actually describes a specific type of sensation. Vertigo is when you feel as if you or your surroundings are moving.
If you experience vertigo, you may feel a spinning, whirling, or tipping sensation. Like dizziness, vertigo also impacts balance. It’s not uncommon for someone with vertigo to also experience nausea or vomiting.
Dizziness and vertigo can also have different causes. Let’s break them down below.
You may experience dizziness for a variety of reasons. Many times, it happens due to environmental conditions or an underlying health condition.
Some potential causes of dizziness include:
- heat exhaustion
- low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
- iron deficiency anemia
- low blood pressure (hypotension)
- motion sickness
- head injuries
- taking certain types of medications
- alcohol consumption
- carbon monoxide poisoning
Vertigo is most often caused by conditions that affect your vestibular system, which is located in your inner ear. Your vestibular system helps provide your brain with information about your movement, positioning, and where you are in space.
Vertigo may also be caused by conditions that impact your central nervous system. This includes your brain and spinal cord.
Potential causes of vertigo include:
- benign paroxysmal positional vertigo
- Meniere’s disease
- vestibular neuritis
- vestibular migraine
- cerebellar stroke
- head injuries
- tumors that affect the central nervous system or inner ear
- multiple sclerosis
- certain types of medications
You may be wondering about lightheadedness, and how this sensation compares to dizziness and vertigo. Indeed, lightheadedness is another term that’s often used along with dizziness and vertigo.
When you feel lightheaded, you may also feel woozy or faint. In fact, lightheadedness can often happen before you pass out. Lightheadedness can occur when your brain isn’t receiving enough oxygen.
Some examples of the possible causes of lightheadedness are:
- a sudden drop in blood pressure when you stand up (orthostatic hypotension)
- dehydration, which can be due to:
- not getting enough fluids
- being sick with vomiting or diarrhea
- taking diuretics
- low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
- intense physical or emotional stress
- very fast breathing (hyperventilation)
- certain types of medications, such as blood pressure medications, some types of antidepressants, and antipsychotics
- alcohol consumption
- structural problems with the heart, such as cardiomyopathy or heart valve disorders
- heart attack
- severe bleeding
It’s possible that lightheadedness may occur along with dizziness. Other symptoms you may have if you feel lightheaded include:
- cold sweats
- blurry vision
If you begin to feel dizzy or lightheaded, there are steps you can take to minimize your risk of injury.
- Lie down: Stop what you’re doing and lie down until the feeling passes. If you can’t lie down, sit and place your head between your knees. When feelings of dizziness or lightheadedness go away, get up slowly, and try to hold onto something.
- Move with care: If you need to move around, do so carefully. It may be helpful to have something to grab onto for support, in case you start to feel dizzy again.
- Avoid some activities: It’s a good idea to avoid some types of activities until you feel better. This includes driving a car, using tools or machinery, or climbing a ladder.
- Hydrate: It’s possible that your symptoms may have been caused by dehydration. Because of this, try to slowly drink some water as you recover.
- Try vertigo exercises: If you’re experiencing vertigo, doing specific vertigo exercises may help ease your symptoms.
Although you may not always be able to prevent dizziness, vertigo, or lightheadedness, there are steps you can take to lower your risk of these sensations.
- Stay hydrated: Dizziness and lightheadedness can both be caused by dehydration, so drink plenty of fluids. This is particularly true if you’re:
- sick with vomiting or diarrhea
- in a warm or hot environment
- exercising or physically exerting yourself
- Keep stress in check: Feelings of stress or anxiety can cause these symptoms, so look for ways to reduce your stress levels. Some effective options include yoga, deep breathing, and meditation.
- Eat regular meals: Getting enough to eat and eating regular meals can help prevent feelings of dizziness or lightheadedness.
- Rest up: Lack of sleep can increase your risk of feeling dizzy or lightheaded.
- Avoid certain substances: If you frequently feel dizzy or lightheaded, substances like caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine could make your symptoms worse.
- Use assistive devices: If you often have spells of dizziness, vertigo, or lightheadedness, it may be a good idea to use a walking stick or install railings or grab bars in your home to prevent a fall.
- Steer clear of certain movements: If you frequently experience vertigo, try to avoid certain types of movements, such as:
- moving your head quickly
- bending down to pick things up
- getting up from a sitting or lying down position too fast
- extending your neck, such as when reaching for something on a shelf
- Manage medications: If you take medications that cause frequent feelings of dizziness, vertigo, or lightheadedness, talk to your doctor. It may be possible to lower your dose or switch to a different medication.
It’s generally a good idea to see a doctor for feelings of dizziness, vertigo, or lightheadedness that:
In order to diagnose what’s causing your symptoms, your doctor will first take your medical history and do a physical examination.
Depending on your medical history and symptoms, your doctor will likely order specific types of tests. These may potentially include, but aren’t limited to:
- blood tests
- balance tests
- imaging technology test like CT or MRI scans
Your treatment plan will focus on addressing the underlying cause of your symptoms. In many cases, treating the cause of dizziness, vertigo, or lightheadedness can help clear up these symptoms.
Dizziness and vertigo are two similar feelings with an important difference. Because of this, it’s important to avoid using them interchangeably.
Dizziness is a general feeling of being off-balance. Vertigo is the feeling that you or your surroundings are moving or spinning. Both dizziness and vertigo can affect your balance and movement.
While dizziness can be caused by a variety of factors, vertigo is often caused by conditions of the inner ear or the central nervous system. The treatment of both dizziness and vertigo aims to address underlying conditions that cause these symptoms.