Labyrinthitis: Causes, Symptoms & Diagnosis


What is labyrinthitis?


  1. Labyrinthitis is an inner ear disorder. It occurs when a vestibular nerve, important to spatial navigation and balance control, becomes inflamed.
  2. Symptoms include dizziness, loss of balance, nausea, vomiting, tinnitus, and vertigo.
  3. With proper treatment, most people find relief from symptoms within 1 to 3 weeks. And they usually achieve full recovery within 1 to 2 months.

Labyrinthitis is an inner ear disorder. The two vestibular nerves in your inner ear send your brain information about your spatial navigation and balance control. When one of these nerves becomes inflamed, it creates a condition known as labyrinthitis.

The symptoms include dizziness, nausea, and loss of hearing. Vertigo, another symptom, is a type of dizziness marked by the sensation that you’re moving, even though you aren’t. It can interfere with driving, working, and other activities. Medications and self-help techniques can lessen the severity of your vertigo.

Several factors can cause this condition, including infections and viruses. You should receive prompt treatment for any ear infections, but there’s no known way to prevent labyrinthitis.

The treatment for labyrinthitis usually involves using medications to control your symptoms. Most people find relief from symptoms within one to three weeks and achieve full recovery in a month or two.

Symptoms of labyrinthitis


Symptoms of labyrinthitis begin quickly and can be quite intense for several days. They usually begin to fade after that, but they can continue to surface when you move your head suddenly. This condition doesn’t usually cause pain.

Symptoms can include:

  • dizziness
  • vertigo
  • loss of balance
  • nausea and vomiting
  • tinnitus, which is characterized by a ringing or buzzing in your ear
  • loss of hearing in the high-frequency range in one ear
  • difficulty focusing your eyes

In very rare cases, complications can include permanent hearing loss.

Causes of labyrinthitis


Labyrinthitis can occur at any age. A variety of factors can cause labyrinthitis, including:

  • respiratory illnesses, such as bronchitis
  • viral infections of the inner ear
  • stomach viruses
  • herpes viruses
  • bacterial infections, including bacterial middle ear infections
  • infectious organisms, such as the organism that causes Lyme disease

You have an increased risk of developing labyrinthitis if you:

  • smoke
  • drink large quantities of alcohol
  • have a history of allergies
  • are habitually fatigued
  • are under extreme stress
  • take some prescription medications
  • take over-the-counter medications (especially aspirin)

When to see the doctor

when to see a doctor

If you have symptoms of labyrinthitis, you should make an appointment to see your doctor to determine the cause.

Certain symptoms can be signs of a more serious condition. Consider these symptoms to be an emergency and seek medical attention immediately:

  • fainting
  • convulsions
  • slurred speech
  • fever
  • weakness
  • paralysis
  • double vision

Diagnosing labyrinthitis


Doctors can generally diagnose labyrinthitis during a physical exam. In some cases, it’s not obvious during an ear exam, so a complete physical exam, including a neurological evaluation, should be performed.

Symptoms of labyrinthitis can mimic those of other conditions, so your doctor may order tests to rule them out. These conditions include:

  • Meniere’s disease, which is an inner ear disorder
  • migraine
  • small stroke
  • brain hemorrhage, which is also known as “bleeding on the brain”
  • damage to the neck arteries
  • benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, which is an inner ear disorder
  • brain tumor

Tests to check for these conditions may include:

  • hearing tests
  • blood tests
  • a CT or MRI scan of your head to record images of your cranial structures
  • electroencephalogram (EEG), which is a brain wave test
  • electronystagmography (ENG), which is an eye movement test

Treatment for labyrinthitis


Symptoms can be relieved with medications, including:

  • prescription antihistamines, such as desloratadine (Clarinex)
  • over-the-counter antihistamines, such as fexofenadine (Allegra), diphenhydramine (Benadryl), or loratadine (Claritin)
  • medications that can reduce dizziness and nausea, such as meclozine (Antivert)
  • sedatives, such as diazepam
  • corticosteroids, such as prednisone

If you have an active infection, your doctor will probably prescribe antibiotics.

In addition to taking medications, there are several techniques you can use to relieve vertigo:

  • Avoid quick changes in position or sudden movements.
  • Sit still during a vertigo attack.
  • Get up slowly from a lying down or seated position.
  • Avoid television, computer screens, and bright or flashing lights during a vertigo attack.
  • If vertigo occurs while you’re in bed, try sitting up in a chair and keeping your head still. Low lighting is better for your symptoms than darkness or bright lights.

If your vertigo continues for a long time, physical and occupational therapists can teach you exercises to help improve balance.

Vertigo can interfere with your ability to operate a car or other machinery safely. You should make other arrangements until it’s safe to drive again.

Long-term outlook


In most cases, symptoms will resolve within one to three weeks, and you’ll experience a full recovery in a few months. In the meantime, symptoms such as vertigo and vomiting may interfere with your ability to work, drive, or participate fully in sports. Try to ease back into these activities slowly as you recover.

If your symptoms haven’t improved after several months, your doctor may want to order additional tests to rule out other conditions if they haven’t already done so.

Most patients have only a single episode of labyrinthitis. It rarely becomes a chronic condition.


You asked, we answered

  • What simple exercises can I do to help improve my balance?
  • - Walk heel-to-toe. Imagine walking across a beam on the floor. Place the heel of one foot in front of the toes of the other as you walk. Hold your arms out for balance.

    - Balance on one foot. Using the back of a chair for support, stand on one foot then the other. Balance on each foot for 15 seconds. Repeat 10 to 15 times.

    - March walk. With arms out and away from your sides, slowly lift one leg, and take a marching step forward. Then, lift the back leg and slowly take another step forward. Walk for 20 steps, turn around, and repeat.

    - Healthline Medical Team
  • Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

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