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50+: Live Better, Longer

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Dizziness Not Always Child's Play

Stop the Spinning

Type 1 -- Vertigo continued...

"When the vestibular system is malfunctioning, people have a sensation of motion either of their head or of their relation to the earth below them -- that is the symptom of vertigo," Samuels says.

There are two very common causes of vertigo:

  • Infectious agents, such as the viruses that cause the common cold or diarrhea. "A week after infection some people get vertigo," Samuels says. This harmless condition usually goes away by itself within 6-8 weeks, although drugs are available if it is severe.
  • Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo or BPPV. This is another harmless condition caused by movement of the otolith -- a tiny calcium particle the size of a grain of sand -- from the part of the ear that senses gravity to the part that senses head position. The person feels as if their head is turning when it isn't. A two-minute therapy done right in the doctor's office can move the otolith back where it belongs and fix the problem.

Another cause of vertigo is Meniere's disease, a disorder characterized by long-lasting episodes of severe vertigo.

"A person usually can't do anything but lie down or they get very nauseated," says Prass, president of Atlantic Coast Ear Specialists and assistant professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School, in Norfolk.

"Other typical symptoms of Meniere's disease are tinnitus -- a roaring and obnoxious buzzing [in the ear], hearing loss, and a feeling of pressure or fullness in the ear," he says. In fact, symptoms of Meniere's disease may be what led van Gogh to cut his ear off.

Another vestibular problem is Dandy's syndrome.

"Dandy's syndrome is when everything bounces up and down," Prass says. "It can happen [to people who have] had to have an antibiotic that is toxic for the ears. Such patients can lose all of their inner ear function for balance [and] have a real bad problem when they try to walk: The world bounces up and down and sometimes all they can do is put their head against a building and hold on. Even a heartbeat will make the world jump."

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