Dizziness vs. vertigo: What the difference is and why it matters

These conditions have some similar — and dangerous — symptoms. But dizziness and vertigo are not the same thing. Understanding the basics can help keep you safe.

Older adult woman thinking about the difference between dizziness and vertigo

Most people have felt woozy or lightheaded at least once in their lives. But feeling dizzy several times a month is much more common in people over age 65 — and it’s a big reason for seeing the doctor.  

What’s going on in the brains of older adults that makes them more likely to get dizzy? It could be a combination of factors. If you have a heart condition, for instance, your brain may not be getting enough oxygen. Or you may have balance issues. Or perhaps you’re taking medications that affect blood flow to the brain. 

Not all bouts of dizziness are alike either. Some people feel like they’re going to faint or are about to fall. Others feel like the room is spinning — or like they’re moving while everything around them stands still. This is known as vertigo.  

Vertigo and dizziness are two separate conditions, even though people often think of them as being the same. And having either one can affect your daily life and safety, so it’s important to understand the difference so you can get help. 

What is dizziness?  

Dizziness is a broad term. It describes the feeling of being unsteady or having a lack of balance while on your feet. You can feel dizzy if you are feeling lightheaded or if things seem foggy

“Dizziness may be described by patients as feeling faint, like they’re going to pass out. Their vision may be bobbing up and down,” says Neil Bhattacharyya, M.D. He’s a professor of otolaryngology–head and neck surgery at Harvard Medical School in Boston. “The floor may feel wobbly underneath them. They may show signs of clumsiness.” 

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What is vertigo? 

Dr. Bhattacharyya explains that vertigo is a subtype of dizziness. With vertigo, a patient feels like the room is spinning in a circle around them. Or they feel a spinning sensation when they’re actually standing still.  

Vertigo and dizziness sound pretty similar. What makes them different? 

What makes vertigo and dizziness different is that vertigo is a specific type of dizziness where you feel like you are spinning. There are other types of dizziness — feeling like you’re floating or general wooziness, for example — where you may feel unbalanced but not like you are spinning. 

What causes vertigo and dizziness?  

“Dizziness is generally a more neurological cause or a potential cardiac cause. For example, it could be a blood flow issue or stenosis of a carotid artery,” says Dr. Bhattacharyya. 

Additional causes of dizziness include: 

  • A drop in blood pressure 
  • Poor blood circulation 
  • Cardiovascular disease 
  • Low blood sugar 
  • Dehydration 
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning 

There are two types of vertigo — peripheral and central — and each has a different cause. 

  • Peripheral vertigo is caused by a problem in the part of the inner ear that controls balance. (This is the nerve between the inner ear and the brain stem.) 
  • Central vertigo is less common and is caused by a problem in the brain. It might be in the brain stem. It could also be in the back part of the brain, called the cerebellum. 

Vertigo can be accompanied by hearing loss because it often affects the nerves that help with hearing. It can also be a sign of an inner ear infection or problems with blood supply to the inner ear. In some cases, vertigo may be a symptom of a stroke

Some additional causes of vertigo include: 

  • Migraines 
  • Diabetes 
  • Shingles 
  • Head injuries 

How common are dizziness and vertigo?  

Dizziness and vertigo are quite common. In fact, the Mayo Clinic reports that approximately one-third of Americans will experience dizziness or vertigo at least once in their life. But if one of these conditions affects you, it could raise your risk of falling. 

Each year, 3 million older people are treated in emergency rooms for fall-related injuries. And depending on how you land, you could find yourself with a broken hip, a concussion, or even something more serious.  

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How do you treat vertigo and dizziness? 

Dr. Bhattacharyya notes that the first step toward treatment would be to see your primary care doctor. From there you may be sent to different specialists, depending on your symptoms. 

For example, dizziness may need to be treated by a neurologist or cardiologist, while vertigo is likely to be treated by an otolaryngologist (ENT). 

“The problem is that many times these symptoms are episodic. But a general rule is that if you have repeated episodes for five to seven days, you should see a doctor,” says Dr. Bhattacharyya. 

Your doctor can help you get to the bottom of the symptoms and find relief. That could mean anything from adjusting your medications to working with a physical therapist to address any balance issues. That combination will go a long way toward making you feel steadier on your feet — and more secure. 

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Additional sources:  
Aging and dizziness: Academy of Neurologic Physical Therapy and National Institute on Aging 
Facts about falls: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 
Vertigo overview: Cleveland Clinic 
Dizziness overview: Mayo Clinic 
Vertigo-associated disorders: National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus