Vertigo and dizziness are not on the CDC’s symptom list, but there may be a link.
The Delta variant has ushered in a new phase of the pandemic, and news of rising COVID-19 diagnoses (and deaths) is generating alarm across the country. So it’s hard to fault anyone who suddenly experiences a mysterious health symptom right now for worrying that it might be a sign of COVID.
One particular symptom people are asking about is vertigo—could vertigo be a sign of the virus? Dizziness, the main characteristic of vertigo, is another possible COVID sign garnering buzz, especially on Twitter.
Right now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not include vertigo or dizziness as symptoms of COVID-19. But doctors Health spoke with believe there could be a link. Here’s what you need to know.
What is vertigo, exactly?
Vertigo is a sensation that either you or your environment is spinning uncontrollably, making you feel dizzy and disoriented. There are two types: peripheral vertigo and central vertigo.
Peripheral vertigo is the result of an inner ear problem, which plays a role in controlling balance. Typically, this kind of vertigo is the result of certain medications and head injuries.
Central vertigo is often caused by a problem in the brain’s cerebellum (which also controls balance) or the brain stem, which sends messages between the cerebellum and the spinal cord. Central vertigo could be triggered by a stroke, migraine, and other causes.
What are the main symptoms of COVID-19?
Again, vertigo and dizziness aren’t on the CDC’s symptom list, nor does the World Health Organization include vertigo or dizziness in their symptoms checker. These are the signs the CDC currently calls out; they typically show up 2-14 days after exposure to COVID.
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
“This list does not include all possible symptoms,” the CDC notes, adding that they plan to update the symptoms as the organization learns more about COVID-19.
So could vertigo or dizziness be signs of COVID-19?
Yes, according to doctors we spoke with. COVID has caused “a range of neurological symptoms, including dizziness” in patients, Natasha Bhuyan, MD, One Medical provider and clinical assistant professor of family, community and preventive medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix, tells Health. Dizziness is also a known symptom for people who are experiencing long-haul COVID—aka, serious side effects that persist weeks or months after the initial coronavirus infection, she says.
Some research backs this up as well. A review of 14 studies and case reports published in September 2020 in Ear, Nose & Throat Journal found that up to 30% of people with COVID-19 will experience dizziness, calling it “one of the main clinical manifestations of COVID-19.” Researchers looked at 141 people diagnosed with COVID-19 and found that all experienced vertigo. “It is imperative that attending physicians remain vigilant, especially when managing nonspecific symptoms such as dizziness, as it can be easily overlooked,” the researchers concluded.
Why would COVID lead to vertigo and dizziness?
Experts aren’t sure, but one possible reason: SARS-CoV-2, the specific coronavirus that causes COVID, affects the brain’s cranial nerves. “This can lead to loss of smell, taste, and a complaint of dizziness or vertigo if the eighth cranial nerve, or the direct vestibular nerve, is involved,” Shae Datta, MD, the director of concussion and cognitive neurology at NYU Langone Hospital on Long Island, tells Health.
Dr. Datta also says that hypoxia could result in dizziness. This condition is defined as having low blood oxygen saturation levels—in other words, your body isn’t getting enough oxygen to maintain proper functioning. This can lead to dizziness, she explains, because the brain needs oxygen-rich blood to maintain your sense of balance.
What to do if you have vertigo or dizziness
Vertigo and dizziness are considered to be pretty complex symptoms in medicine, says Dr. Bhuyan. So treatment depends on the type you’re experiencing.
“Some vertigo can be resolved without treatment at all,” Robert Quigley, MD, an immunologist and senior vice president and global medical director of travel health company International SOS, tells Health. “However, if vertigo is caused by an underlying problem, it might be treated through antibiotics, over-the-counter medicine, or even surgery per the direction of your health care provider.”
If your dizziness or vertigo can’t be explained by a head injury or other more typical cause, consider checking in with your doctor for a COVID test, just to play it safe.