Written by Ann Pietrangelo | Published on July 2, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Labyrinthitis?

Labyrinthitis is a disorder of the inner ear. The two vestibular nerves in your inner ear send your brain information about your head movement. When one of these nerves becomes inflamed, it creates a condition known as labyrinthitis.

Symptoms include dizziness, vertigo, nausea, and loss of hearing. Vertigo (the sensation of moving when you are not) 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 is no known way to prevent labyrinthitis.

Treatment usually involves using medications to control your symptoms. Most people find relief from symptoms within a couple of 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. After that, they usually begin to fade, but continue to surface when you move your head suddenly. This condition does not usually cause pain.

Symptoms can include:

  • dizziness
  • vertigo
  • loss of balance
  • nausea and vomiting
  • tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in your ear)
  • loss of hearing in the high-frequency rangein one ear
  • difficulty focusing eyes

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

Causes of Labyrinthitis

Labyrinthitis can happen to people of all ages. It can be caused by a variety of factors, including:

  • respiratory illnesses (such as bronchitis)
  • viruses of the inner ear
  • stomach viruses
  • herpes viruses
  • bacterial infections (including bacterial middle ear infections)
  • infectious organisms(like the one that causes Lyme disease)

You are at 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 or over-the-counter medications (especially aspirin)

When to See the Doctor

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

If your symptoms include fainting, convulsions, slurred speech, fever, weakness, paralysis, or double vision, it could be a sign of a more serious condition. Consider this an emergency and seek medical attention immediately.

Diagnosing Labyrinthitis

Labyrinthitis can be diagnosed during a physical examination. In some cases, itis not obvious during an ear examination, so a complete physical exam, including a neurological check-up, 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:

  • Ménières syndrome (another inner ear disorder)
  • migraine
  • small stroke
  • brain hemorrhage (bleeding on the brain)
  • damage to the neck arteries
  • an active infection
  • benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (an inner ear/vertigo disorder)
  • brain tumor

Tests to check for these conditions may include:

  • hearing tests
  • CT or MRI scan of the head to record images of cranial structures
  • EEG (brain wave test)
  • ENG (eye movement test)
  • blood tests

Treatment for Labyrinthitis

Symptoms can be relieved with medications, including:

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

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

In addition to 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 sitting position.
  • Avoid television, computer screens, and bright or flashing lights during a vertigo attack.
  • If vertigo occurs while you are in bed, try sitting up in a chair and keeping your head still. Low lighting is better 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.

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

Long-Term Outlook

In most cases, symptoms will resolve within one to three weeks, and you will 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 have not improved after several months, your doctor may want to order additional testing to rule out other conditions, if he or she has not already done so.

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

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