Emergency Symptoms Are Good at Hiding
At first, dizziness may not seem like a big deal. Maybe you got up too fast or haven’t had enough water to drink. But occasionally, dizzy spells can indicate a serious problem with your health—something that means you need to get to the emergency room, fast.
So, how do you tell the difference between a little dizziness and a warning sign of a dangerous medical issue? First, you should know the basics.
What is dizziness?
When you’re having a dizzy spell, you may feel woozy and lightheaded, and your vision or hearing may be a little off. Vertigo, a type of dizziness, happens when you feel a spinning, swaying or tilting—like you’re moving, or the room around you is moving. Both general dizziness and vertigo can cause you to feel off-balance and may make walking difficult.
Most dizzy spells are temporary and will go away when you sit, lie down or give them a few minutes to pass. Occasional dizziness or vertigo—not accompanied by other symptoms—shouldn’t be too worrisome. If you’re concerned, make an appointment with your doctor to get to the bottom of things. Dizziness can also be a side effect of medication; your doctor should be made aware of that, too.
When to seek immediate help for a dizzy spell
While isolated instances of minor dizziness are not usually cause for alarm, go to the emergency room if your dizzy spells are accompanied by one or more of the following symptoms.
Dizziness paired with one or more of the following? Go to the ER.
- A new or severe headache
- A stiff neck
- A temperature over 100.4ºF
- Chest pain
- Constant vomiting
- Heart palpitations
- Not being able to walk
- Speech and hearing difficulties
- Tingling or numbness
- Vision problems, including double vision
- Weakness in one arm or one leg
For some people, vertigo without additional symptoms can indicate a big-time issue if they’re unable to regain your balance or the room keeps spinning. Seek immediate medical help at the ER if you’ve had vertigo for several minutes and:
- You’ve previously had a stroke
- You’re at high risk for having a stroke
- You’re age 55 or older
Someone with severe dizziness who suspects a medical emergency shouldn’t drive. In these situations, it’s best to call 911.
What dizziness with other symptoms could mean
When dizziness is accompanied by additional symptoms, it could indicate the following serious health problems, and you should get to an ER as soon as you can:
Dizziness plus confusion, vision problems, a severe headache, trouble walking and weakness on one side of the body could mean you’re having a stroke. Since blood flow to the brain is slowed or cut off during a stroke, the faster help arrives, the better chance a patient has at survival.
Feeling lightheaded, weak and short of breath could be signs of a heart attack. You may also feel pain in one or more of the following areas:
- Your chest
- Your jaw, neck or back—especially for women
- Your shoulders or arms
Unexplained fatigue, a cold sweat, nausea and vomiting are other clues. Dizziness happens more frequently for women having a heart attack than for men.
Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
If you experience dizziness following a blow or jolt to your head or body—especially if it comes with weakness, a worsening headache, vomiting, behavioral changes, slurred speech or seizure—seek medical help immediately. It may be a TBI. (Concussions are milder kinds of TBIs.)
Remember: while the majority of dizzy spells are nothing to worry about, knowing when they really do mean something can save your life—or the life of someone you love. So, call 911 right away if you suspect a stroke, heart attack, TBI or other emergency situation.
Are your dizziness symptoms emergent? Find a TriStar ER near you.