When Your Child Has Vertigo

Cross section of ear showing outer, middle, and inner ear with closeup of cochleaYour child is standing still, but feels like he or she is moving or spinning. This feeling is known as vertigo. Vertigo can be uncomfortable. But it’s usually not a sign of a major health problem. Vertigo can be treated so your child feels better.

Understanding the balance system

The inner ear plays a key role in helping the body keep its balance. To do this, the inner ear senses head and body position, and motion. It also works with other parts of the body, such as the eyes. The body relies on the inner ear for balance signals. Signals sent to the brain from the inner ear, eyes, and other areas help the body stay balanced. 

What causes vertigo?

The exact cause of vertigo is not always known. But if your child has an inner ear problem, the brain may be getting the wrong signals. This can lead to vertigo. The following are the most common causes of inner ear problems in children:

  • Things that cause congestion (such as colds, allergies, or sinus infection). This leads to fluid backup through the Eustachian tube, which links the ear to the sinuses.

  • Labyrinthitis, a condition caused by a viral infection of the labyrinth (a part of the inner ear).

  • Closed head injury. Sometimes children can damage their inner ear structures when sustaining a head injury therefore causing vertigo. Sometimes the inner ear will remain intact but children will have a concussion following a head injury, which can produce  symptoms that may include dizziness or vertigo.

  • Meniere's disease. This is a syndrome where the body makes an abnormal amount of fluid in the inner ear leading to episodes of vertigo associated with ringing in the ears and hearing loss. This is uncommon but can occur in children.

  • Benign paroxysmal vertigo of childhood. Symptoms included the sudden sensations of spinning, loss of balance, nausea, and vomiting. These episodes may reoccur several times a month for several years, often disappearing by age 8.

  • Migraine. There is a specific migraine referred to as basillar artery migraine that can produce both headache and vertigo. The symptoms of vertigo usually resolve when the headache resolves.

How is vertigo diagnosed?

The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s overall health and symptoms. This is the main way that vertigo is diagnosed. Your child will also be examined, especially his or her head and ears. There isn’t a specific test to diagnose vertigo. In some cases, tests may be done to rule out other health problems including CT or MRI of the brain.

How is vertigo treated?

Often, vertigo will resolve on its own without treatment. If vertigo is caused by an inner ear problem, the healthcare provider may prescribe medications. They can help your child’s balance system get back to normal. The most common medications are:

  • Antihistamines to treat inner ear problems

  • Motion sickness medicine (if needed)

  • Antibiotics, antivirals, or steroids if an ear infection is suspected

Keep your child from activities that require balance or coordination until vertigo is gone. This includes skateboarding, riding a bike or scooter, rollerskating, or driving.

When to call your child's healthcare provider

Call your child’s healthcare provider right away if you notice any of the following:

  • Repeated or prolonged episodes of vertigo

  • Severe vertigo (child is unable to move)

  • Vertigo along with another problem, such as ear ringing, ear pain, headache, ear stuffiness, or hearing loss

  • Your child appears confused or is not acting him- or herself