Labyrinth in ear

Symptoms, causes and treatments

Labyrinthitis: definition

Labyrinthitis is an inner ear viral infection, where you typically experience feelings of vertigo and dizziness. It occurs when the labyrinth - a delicate structure deep within the ear - becomes inflamed, often as a result of exposure to another more common viral illness such as a cold or flu.

The symptoms of labyrinthitis

There are three symptoms that arise with nearly every case of labyrinthitis - dizziness, hearing loss and vertigo. In mild cases, you may only experience slight symptoms in short bursts, but in severe cases you may encounter high intensity loss of balance that you may not be able to stand upright, or it could be suspected that you were having a stroke.

Other symptoms of labyrinthitis include: 

  • Hearing loss, ranging from mild to total hearing loss
  • Pressure in the affected ear(s)
  • Tinnitus
  • Ear pain
  • Vomiting and/or nausea
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Feverish temperatures of 38°C or above

If you are feeling dizzy or unbalanced, it is advised that you avoid driving, using tools and machinery, or working at heights. Symptoms normally last anywhere from a few days to several weeks, but particularly bad cases can persist for months or even years after the initial viral infection has gone.

If you are experiencing balance symptoms without hearing loss, you could actually be suffering from a condition known as vestibular neuronitis. Both terms are used interchangeably, with only a very slight difference in symptoms.

The causes of labyrinthitis

Labyrinthitis and vestibular neuronitis are both viral infections, caused by common illnesses such as sore throats, glandular fever, colds or flu. Other causes are less likely, but certain other conditions may have symptoms that encourage labryrinthitis:

Bacterial infection in the middle ear

  • Meningitis
  • Ear injury
  • Allergies
  • Tumours
  • Blood circulation blockage to part of the brain
  • A side effect of medication (very rare)

Treatment and remedies for labyrinthitis

For sudden attacks of vertigo that are accompanied by deafness in one ear, it is advised that you seek urgent medical attention, as it could be a sign of blocked blood vessels to the brain or there may be additional problems which may need hearing aid support. For less intense but more persistent cases, your local doctor may prescribe anti-sickness medication to help with the vertigo, or a short course of steroid tablets that will encourage the inflammation to reduce quicker. If symptoms do not clear up within a few weeks, you may be referred for vestibular rehabilitation therapy.

For incidences of labyrinthitis that have a less common cause, specific treatment will be prescribed. For instance, a bacterial infection in the middle ear might require antibiotics that would be ineffectual for a viral infection.

If you’re suffering with labyrinthitis, there are a variety of self-help options that might alleviate some of the symptoms. Drinking plenty of water, bed rest and minimising exposure to bright lights, caffeine and loud noises should help ease the dizziness. It is also advised to avoid stressful situations.

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