Kate holds a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree in biology from Sonoma State University in California and suffers from chronic vertigo.
Sudden dizziness is, unfortunately, not that uncommon, and if you're here reading this right now, then you're probably dealing with a bout of vertigo or a dizzy spell.
Dizziness can present in different ways, depending on the cause. You might feel like the world around you is spinning at a high speed, like you just stepped off a boat that was sailing the high seas, or you might just experience a subtle dizzy feeling, like when you're extremely exhausted or need to eat something after a long day at work.
Whether or not the dizziness is severe, it's hard not to freak out when it happens. Something to remember, though, is that more often than not, dizziness is not a sign that something is seriously wrong. Here are a few reasons you could be feeling dizzy:
Overview of the Reasons You Might be Dizzy
|Condition||What It Is||What to Do|
The effects of getting too hot or not consuming enough liquids throughout the day. Who here isn't guilty of that?
Drink more water! If you don't love water, try a sparkling or flavored version to help motivate you. Watery fruits and vegetables like watermelon and cucumbers also help prevent dehydration. If you plan to be in the sun or outside when it's warm, plan frequent breaks in the shade or A/C and bring along a cold bottle of water.
Inner Ear Issues
Everything from diseases of the ears to, much more commonly, infections, viruses, allergies and just plain ol' congestion or movement of the liquid produced by your ears getting jostled around causing vertigo and dizziness.
Try to pinpoint when your dizzy spells occur, take note, and talk to your doctor so you can come up with a solution. They might refer you to an ENT (ear, nose, throat specialist).
A Virus or Infection
Bugs like the flu, a stomach virus and just a common cold can cause dizziness.
If you know that you're sick with a bug, ride out the dizziness until the virus has run it's course, being sure to stay hydrated and avoid activities that might jeopardize your safety should a dizzy spell occur. If you have a fever or pain, call your doc to rule out an infection that needs treatment.
Anxiety can cause a slew of awful symptoms, including dizziness.
If this is a frequent problem, address your anxiety issues with your doctor.
Side Effects of Medications
Certain medications and antibiotics can come with unpleasant side effects including dizziness.
Make sure to read the included pamphlet on your meds before taking them and if you begin to experience dizziness talk to your doctor about adjusting the dosage or the medication itself.
A Neurological Disorder
Though this is a much less common reason for experiencing dizziness, some neurological disorders can cause this symptom.
If you frequently experience dizziness along with other concerning symptoms like numbness, let your doctor know so they can rule out any major causes.
About the Vestibular System
Before digging into the specific causes of dizziness, let's go over the way that your body maintains balance. Oddly enough, the system in your body that allows you to balance is the vestibular system, which is located in your inner ear. There's a fluid within this system as well.
As you move and rotate your head, the fluid in the ear sends nerve signals to the brain which allows it to determine the position of your body. These signals can help the brain determine which direction the head is turned and therefore allow you to be properly balanced.
There are three different canal regions filled with fluid and each one measures a different direction of rotation.
- Posterior Semicircular Canal: This measures the movement of the head in the direction of right to left or toward each shoulder.
- Superior Semicircular Canal: This is responsible for measuring the movement of the head in an up or down nodding motion.
- Lateral Semicircular Canal: This canal measures shaking of the head such as a motion that you would perform when shaking your head no.
Each of these canals is located deep in the ear, within the “labyrinth.” The labyrinth works in sync with other parts of the ear to allow you to properly hear, see, and balance yourself. Any issues within this system can result in sudden and onset dizziness.
Okay, now that we understand that, here are a few of the reasons that dizziness may happen.
You Have an Inner Ear Issue
So, like we just learned, the inner ear is a very important part of staying balanced. Without a properly functioning and healthy vestibular system, you're going to have trouble staying balanced. With that being said, any disturbance to your inner ear could throw off the system, jostling around that fluid we just learned about and sending signals to your brain that it doesn't know exactly where it is. But what could throw your ears off so terribly? We're talking any amount of sinus congestion (had a cold or allergies recently?), swimming, and high altitudes.
Although rare, injuries and traumas can certainly occur to the inner ear. One of the main reasons for damage to the inner ear is loud sounds. People are often exposed to them throughout their entire life. Not only will loud sounds damage your hearing, it is also possible that it could damage your vestibular system. Mind you, this would require a very loud sound in order to have that kind of impact.
You Have an Infection Somewhere in Your Ear(s)
Who here hasn't had an ear infection at some point? Infection in the ear has the ability to interfere with the vestibular system as well. When an infection occurs, the ear is often blocked and swollen which doesn't allow the vestibular system to properly function. No wonder kids with ear infections are so cranky!
There are a few different reasons why ear infections happen and sometimes they're preventable and other times it just has to do with the makeup of your ear, like a weirdly shaped canal or extra waxy ears. Any buildup of fluids, whether it's natural ear fluids or water from the shower can cause bacteria to become stuck in the ear and result in an infection.
You're Taking a Medication that Causes Dizziness
Prescription meds and antibiotics can, as a side effect, cause dizziness. If you're taking medications, especially those that treat seizures, depression, anxiety or blood-pressure related issues, let your doctor know about your dizziness. They might want to adjust the dosage or try a medication with less severe side effects.
You Have an Anxiety Disorder
Have you ever walked into a room full of people who all seem to be having a super awesome time and all look like they have super awesome lives and suddenly felt like the room was starting to spin a bit?
That's anxiety, and anxiety is a beast that comes in all different forms, including dizzy spells.
While everyone experiences occasional anxiety, some people feel varying levels of anxiety all day every day. And though anxiety-induced dizziness is extremely uncomfortable, it's relatively harmless. If you think anxiety is the cause of your dizziness take a few deep breaths to level yourself back out and if it's a frequent feature in your life, let your doctor know so you can figure out a plan of action to tackle that anxiety.
You Have a Neurological Condition
Neurological conditions are the least likely reason you're experiencing dizziness, but some of the neurological disorders that interfere with balance are Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis.
However, you would need to be experiencing a slew of other symptoms or have a family history of these disorders before you start thinking this far ahead.
If you've been experiencing frequent dizzy spells along with other symptoms like numbness, make sure to talk to your doctor.
You're Overheated or Dehydrated (Or Both...)
Another common reason for dizziness is overheating and dehydration. Our body uses a system to cool itself off when it gets hot by sweating. Although sweat works well, it can only do so much against grunt work in a wool sweater or spending the afternoon lounging in 90-degree weather, especially if you're not regularly gulping water and taking breaks to cool off.
Here's the thing, you can't just hydrate with anything. Pouring another cup of coffee or sipping on soda all day is actually going to contribute to dehydration. That's because caffeine is a diuretic which basically means that caffeinated drinks make you pee a lot, so you lose more fluid. Plus, all of the sugar just isn't that great for you. To stay hydrated you should keep a bottle of water nearby whenever you're out and about or working in the heat.
Besides water some great (and tasty) hydration options are:
- Coconut water: It's full of electrolytes and free of added sugar.
- Smoothies: Bonus points if you throw some extra watery veggies in there like a yellow pepper or a few slices of cucumber.
- Sports drinks: You don't want to down these all day every day because they're loaded with sugar, but if you've just finished up a hike on an 80-degree day or you're going to spend the morning mowing your two-acre lawn then sure, treat yourself to an electrolyte-packed sports drink.
- Sparkling or flavored waters: Brands like LaCroix, Dasani and even store brands are hoppin' on the fizzy-water bandwagon. For those of us who don't love straight water, these drinks are a great option.
When to Call a Doctor
If you experience sudden dizziness along with chest pain you should seek medical care immediately (like, go to the ER).
That being said, if you experience infrequent dizziness that doesn't interfere with your life, you probably don't need to ring up 911 or anything. Take note of when it occurs and if you see a pattern. This will give you more information to share with your doctor if you need to.
For instance, I experience vertigo a few times a year and after the first couple of times I realized that it only happens if I sleep in an awkward way, with my head pointing down (I sleep in my kids' bed sometimes and well, I don't fit that great and my head slips off the edge a bit sometimes). It moves the fluid in my ears into the wrong places and I end up dealing with the spins for a couple of hours.
My dizzy spells aren't a medical emergency, but they're still a bummer—just as I'm sure your episodes are for you—which is why anytime you're feeling concerned about your health is a perfect time to call your doctor. That's what they're there for: to help you troubleshoot your medical worries—you know, since they went to college for it and all.
How Is Dizziness Treated?
The treatment for dizziness depends on the cause. If the cause is dehydration, the treatment is more fluids. If the cause is an ear infection, the treatment is an antibiotic. For allergy-induced dizziness, your doctor will recommend or prescribe an allergy medication. Can you diagnose your vertigo and dizziness issues on the internet? Nah, but you can use this article to look for clues about your own experience and share them with your doctor to come up with the best treatment options for you.
Sources used to obtain information for this article are:
- "Understanding Dizziness - The Basics" on WebMD
- "Causes of Dizziness" by the Vestibular Disorders Association
- "10 Surprising Facts About Dizziness and Vertigo" by Sara Altshul
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2018 Kate Stroud