Symptoms of labyrinthitis
- Vertigo (the feeling that you, or everything around you, is spinning)
- Loss of balance
- Difficulty standing up or walking
- Feeling or being sick
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ear)
- Hearing loss
These symptoms can be quite severe and will usually last for a few days. Your hearing should improve and you will start to feel better after that, but you might feel a bit unsteady on your feet for a while, especially if you move your head suddenly. If your symptoms do not subside or improve after a few days, please contact your GP or call NHS advice on 111.
As with all ear conditions, if you experience a sudden loss of hearing in one ear, with or without any sensation of dizziness, seek emergency medical advice immediately.
What causes labyrinthitis?
Labyrinthitis can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection.
Most cases will be viral and typically follow on from a cold or flu, where the infection spreads from the airways, mouth, nose or chest into the inner ear.
Bacterial labyrinthitis usually affects young children. This type is rarer, but can be more serious. This can follow on from a middle ear infection or meningitis, where the bacteria passes through to the inner ear.
Labyrinthitis will usually be diagnosed by a GP. They’ll ask questions about your symptoms and your medical history, and carry out a physical exam.
Your ears, eyes and muscles all work together to send the brain messages about our balance. So part of the GP’s examination will involve testing your body’s nerve function, asking you to move your head around, and checking your eyes for signs of uncontrolled flickering – these can all indicate how well your balance system is working.
They’ll look for signs of infection or inflammation in your ears, and might also test your hearing, as one of the distinguishing symptoms of labyrinthitis is hearing loss.
During the first few days, your symptoms will be at their most intense. While you’re feeling dizzy or sick, it’s best to rest in bed where you can avoid making sudden movements or changing your position too much as this can make you feel worse.
If your dizziness feels worse when you lie down, try sitting up and keeping your head still. Try to avoid bright lighting or watching television during bouts of vertigo, and stand up slowly when you need to get up.
Your GP might prescribe medication to help you cope with symptoms, or antibiotics if it’s caused by a bacterial infection.
People with chronic, or long-term, labyrinthitis might benefit from vestibular rehabilitation therapy (VRT) which is a method of retraining your brain and body to deal with the change in your balance.
The difference between labyrinthitis and vestibular neuritis
Labyrinthitis and vestibular neuritis are very similar conditions in that they both affect the inner ear, and have very similar symptoms.
The main difference between the two is that vestibular neuritis only affects the nerve responsible for balance, while labyrinthitis affects the nerve for hearing as well as balance. So labyrinthitis can be distinguished from vestibular neuritis if people also experience hearing loss or tinnitus.
Symptoms can be quite intense for about a week, but then start to get better over the course of a few weeks.
Some cases, known as chronic labyrinthitis, can last for months or years. However, the symptoms are not as severe.
It can feel worse if you’re trying to move around, so it’s often best to lie down and rest. It’s also a good idea to stay well hydrated to help ease symptoms.
Recurring middle ear infections can cause repeat episodes of labyrinthitis, as can Ménière’s disease and regular colds and upper respiratory viral infections.
Untreated autoimmune conditions can also cause labyrinthitis as the body mistakes the healthy tissues of the inner ear as an active infection and attempts to resolve it.