Dizziness accompanied by a head injury, chest pain, or shortness of breath may require a trip to an emergency department. For recurring or persistent dizziness, contact a doctor.

Dizziness is a broad term that describes being lightheaded, unsteady, disoriented, or woozy. It’s not usually a cause for concern, but combined with other symptoms, it might suggest a medical emergency.

A visit to the emergency department can be costly, so knowing when to seek emergency help for dizziness can be helpful.

This article will examine when dizziness may require a visit to an emergency department (also called an “emergency room” or “ER”) and detail what emergency medical staff can do to help. We’ll also look at nonemergency symptoms that may suggest seeking medical help soon.

How often is dizziness an emergency?

According to 2021 research, only about 5% of emergency department visits for dizziness were due to a time-sensitive condition. Most emergency cases are due to conditions that affect blood flow to the brain, like stroke.

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Dizziness usually isn’t a cause for concern. But in rare cases, it could be a precursor to a medical emergency, like a stroke. In those cases, other symptoms may provide the best clue as to what steps to take.

Head injury

If you experience dizziness with a head injury, it’s important to seek immediate medical attention. You could have a concussion or more severe traumatic brain injury.

Chest pain

Dizziness with chest pain could suggest a serious heart event, like a heart attack. Contact emergency services if your chest pain lasts more than a few minutes.

Shortness of breath

Several causes of shortness of breath (dyspnea) with dizziness don’t need emergency help. Still, it could be an indication of:

Other symptoms

Other symptoms in adults that may call for a visit to an emergency department include:

Dizziness may be more serious if you have an underlying condition. You may want to visit an emergency department for dizziness if you have a history of:

Older adults may also be at greater risk of a time-sensitive condition, according to 2021 research.

You may also be at greater risk for a time-sensitive medical condition if you take blood thinners. According to a 2021 study, the use of blood thinners doubled the risk for such a condition.

Not all dizziness is an emergency. It could be a problem with your vestibular system — the connection between your inner ear and brain that controls your balance. These are usually not emergency cases.

Many nonvestibular causes are also not an emergency. Possible nonvestibular causes include dehydration and medication side effects.

In these cases, call your doctor for an in-office evaluation. Look for symptoms like:

How long should dizziness last before seeing a doctor?

Anyone with recurring episodes of dizziness should try to see a doctor as soon as possible. If the dizziness is accompanied by chest pain, shortness of breath, or head injury, go to the emergency department immediately.

However, if you have had a single episode lasting less than a minute, with no other symptoms, it’s alright to wait and see if you have another episode.

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When you feel dizzy, lie down and try to relax while waiting for the dizzy feeling to subside. Avoid activities that worsen the dizziness, and be careful when standing back up.

If driving when you get dizzy, pull over to the side of the road and wait for the feeling to go away. Do not operate a vehicle or machinery while feeling dizzy.

Smoking can make dizziness worse, so stop smoking if you do, and avoid secondhand smoke.

Some medications may cause dizziness. But it’s best to talk with a doctor before you stop taking any medications.

An emergency doctor will ask a series of questions about symptoms and medical history. They will also perform a physical evaluation.

Depending on their initial observations, a doctor may order tests to either confirm or rule out a serious cause. Additional tests may include:

Urgent care vs. emergency for dizziness

For many conditions, urgent care is a good option, usually with shorter waiting times. Dizziness is probably not one of them. Dizziness is usually either mild enough for home management or serious enough to require the specialized care of the emergency department.

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On its own, dizziness is a common occurrence that is usually a passing moment of discomfort. If it lasts more than a few moments, comes with other symptoms, or repeats, you should contact your doctor.

A few symptoms, like the inability to speak, loss of balance or coordination, severe headache, and fainting, indicate a serious medical condition and the need to visit an emergency department.

Emergency medical staff will take a complete medical history, ask about symptoms, and may run tests to determine the cause of the dizziness.