Labyrinthitis: Causes, Symptoms & Diagnosis


What Is Labyrinthitis?

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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