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Meniere's Disease

Q: About a year ago, I began experiencing dizzy spells and a ringing in my ears that sometimes leaves me so lightheaded I have to sit down for 10 minutes until they pass. They're pretty infrequent, sometimes a whole month goes by without incident, but I'm starting to get concerned. Is this a sign of something serious?

Dr. Donnica:
Dizziness is fairly common. It may be called lightheadedness, feeling faint, being unsteady, losing balance, or feeling that you or the room is spinning (vertigo). The good news is that most causes of dizziness are not serious. They either resolve quickly or respond well to treatment. Common causes include dehydration (from excessive sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, or fever), a bad cold or the flu, anemia (low blood count), or sudden drops in blood pressure. More serious causes include heart problems or stroke, but these conditions are usually accompanied by other symptoms.

Dizzy spells with ringing in the ears as you've described sounds like you may have either labyrinthitis (a viral infection of the inner ear which usually follows a cold or the flu) or Meniere's disease (an inner ear problem which causes vertigo, lost balance and ringing in the ears). The exact cause of Meniere's disease is unknown, but it affects nearly 100,000 Americans per year. It may be related to a middle ear infection, or more rarely, to syphilis or a head injury. Other risk factors include a recent viral illness or respiratory infection, stress, fatigue, side effects of certain drugs (e.g. aspirin), and a history of allergies, smoking, or alcohol use. Symptoms may last from minutes to more than 8 hours and are worsened by sudden movement.

You should be evaluated by your physician. He or she will examine your nervous system and test hearing, balance and eye movement. Other tests may include a head CT or MRI, "caloric stimulation" (testing the eyes' reflexes), and other specialized neurological tests. While there is no "cure" for Meniere's disease, treatment with antihistamines, anticholinergics, or diuretics may lessen the frequency and severity of your symptoms. A low-salt diet may also be recommended. If hearing loss develops, hearing aids may be necessary.

Created: 7/5/2004  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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