Alcohol consumption can cause vertigo, among other symptoms. In medicine, physicians use guidelines as the gold standard to drive client care. According to a set of clinical practice guidelines for vertigo, vertigo is an illusory sensation of motion of either yourself (or your surroundings) in the absence of movement.
Vertigo is essentially the sensation of you, or the world around you, moving when your eyes, ears and other senses are telling you that you are holding still. Severe vertigo can lead to nausea and vomiting when signals are sent to your gastrointestinal (GI) tract because it believes your body is in motion. It is important to remember that vertigo is a symptom and not a disease or disorder by itself.
Side Effects of Alcohol Use and Vertigo
If you drink alcohol and experiences vertigo, common mild symptoms of alcohol intoxication usually include:
- Ataxia (impaired balance or coordination)
- Memory loss
- Nausea and vomiting
- Slowed breathing
- Slurred speech
Symptoms of more severe alcohol intoxication (with or without vertigo) include:
- Blue or pale skin
- The shutdown of respiratory centers (breathing stops)
Think of vertigo as a type of dizziness. However, alcohol can cause another type of dizziness: lightheadedness. Other terms for this symptom are faintness or a syncopal episode. Syncopal episodes are a feeling like you are going to faint and can result in a loss of consciousness.
Alcoholism and vertigo often occur together, but long-term abuse of alcohol can increase your tolerance of alcohol’s illusory effects. Over time, your body can adjust to some of the symptoms of alcohol intoxication and they may lessen.
Vertigo caused by alcohol is more likely to occur if you don’t regularly drink alcohol and only drink occasionally. However, this does not mean that if you’re immune to vertigo or other symptoms of alcohol intoxication if you struggle with alcoholism. Vertigo and alcohol consumption are usually unsafe together.
How Alcohol Affects the Brain and Ears
You might hear vertigo referred to as “the spins,” and it is an uncomfortable experience. You can mimic this effect by standing and spinning around several times in place. Notice that when you stop spinning, you have the sensation that the room keeps spinning around you. This effect happens because you are getting two different sensory inputs from the left and right side of your body.
Alcohol, the Inner Ear and Vertigo
So, how does alcohol use cause different sensory inputs to your left versus right sides? It can cause vertigo in two primary ways, and the first is by impacting the parts of your ears that sense angular and linear motion. In each ear, there are three semicircular canals and otolith organs that are filled with fluid. Within this fluid are little hairs attached to nerve cells that send signals to your brain.
When you move your head, the fluid moves in the opposite direction for a brief moment, bending the hairs, which creates three sets of electrical signals that are sent to the brain. The three semicircular canals are bent at three different angles, so your brain can use these signals to compute the location of your head in space and produce the feeling of movement. When alcohol causes dehydration, it can lower the amount of fluid in one ear more than the other, which will produce different signals of motion of the left versus right side, and cause vertigo.
Alcohol, Brain Cell Signals and Vertigo
The second way alcohol can cause vertigo is by impacting the signals within brain cells (neurons). A signal moves within the space of one neuron via an electrical signal. Signals move between neurons through neurotransmitters.
Alcohol primarily affects the neurotransmitter pathways of gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), glutamate, dopamine, adenosine and serotonin and does so in many areas of the brain. When signaling in the brain stem is impacted, your brain cannot process input from the inner ears properly, and you may experience vertigo.
Can You Drink Alcohol With Vertigo?
You should avoid drinking alcohol if you have a history of vertigo. While vertigo is only a symptom, some common disorders where it plays a central role are:
- Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV): small calcium particles called canaliths build up in the inner ears and disrupt the fluid and hairs that sense movement. Typically, BPPV occurs in the elderly and can be treated in the doctor’s office.
- Meniere’s disease: fluid builds in the inner ear and can symptoms like hearing loss, tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and vertigo.
- Vestibular neuritis or labyrinthitis: an infection of the inner ear causes inflammation that disrupts the motion signals sent to your brain and causes vertigo.
In all of the above disorders, vertigo can be treated by addressing the underlying condition, so it is important to visit your doctor and to avoid alcohol if you already have vertigo as a symptom.
Vertigo and alcohol withdrawal commonly occur together as your body works to correct the changes made by a long-term alcohol use disorder. Over time, your body becomes accustomed to functioning with less fluid and your neurons can compensate for the altered signals sent by your inner ear. When the alcohol is removed, vertigo can occur as the ears and brain work to normalize themselves.
Key Points: Alcohol and Vertigo
Important takeaways about alcohol and vertigo include:
- Alcohol use can cause vertigo symptoms
- Vertigo is the sensation of the world moving around you even though you are still
- Side effects of alcohol and vertigo can be similar and may include ataxia, disinhibition and blue skin tone
- Long-term alcohol use can increase your tolerance to alcohol’s illusory effects, but chronic alcohol abuse is not safe
- Alcohol affects the inner ear and also the brain cell signals, causing vertigo symptoms
- Avoid alcohol use if you have a history of vertigo symptoms
- Conditions where vertigo occurs may include Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV), Meniere’s disease and vestibular neuritis or labyrinthitis
If you or someone you know needs treatment for alcohol abuse or addiction, The Recovery Village can help. We have facilities located across the country and offer comprehensive treatment programming tailored to each client’s unique needs. To take the first step toward recovery, call The Recovery Village today.
Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan. “Dizziness: Lightheadedness and Vertigo | Michigan Medicine.” Last updated on September 23, 2018. Accessed 24 April 2019. Bhattacharyya, Neil. “Clinical Practice Guideline: Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo” Sage Journals, 2017. Accessed 24 April 2019. Ford-Martin, Paula. “Types of Vertigo.” WebMD, 2014. Accessed 24 Apr. 2019. National Center for Biotechnology Information. “How Does Our Sense of Balance Work?” Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, 2017. Accessed 24 April 2019. David M. Lovinger, Ph.D. “Communication Networks in the Brain” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2019. Accessed 24 Apr. 2019. Veda. “Symptoms.” Published on 28 September 2018, Accessed 24 Apr. 2019.
Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan. “Dizziness: Lightheadedness and Vertigo | Michigan Medicine.” Last updated on September 23, 2018. Accessed 24 April 2019.
Bhattacharyya, Neil. “Clinical Practice Guideline: Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo” Sage Journals, 2017. Accessed 24 April 2019.
Ford-Martin, Paula. “Types of Vertigo.” WebMD, 2014. Accessed 24 Apr. 2019.
National Center for Biotechnology Information. “How Does Our Sense of Balance Work?” Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, 2017. Accessed 24 April 2019.
David M. Lovinger, Ph.D. “Communication Networks in the Brain” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2019. Accessed 24 Apr. 2019.
Veda. “Symptoms.” Published on 28 September 2018, Accessed 24 Apr. 2019.