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Inner Ear Infection: Symptoms, Prevention And Treatment

Inner Ear Infection

Inner ear infections that lead to labyrinthitis are usually caused by a virus. Sometimes bacteria can cause it, too. The symptoms of viral and bacterial infections can be so similar that a doctor needs to confirm which type you have before they can treat it

An ear infection is a bacterial or viral infection of the middle ear. This infection causes inflammation and the buildup of fluid within the internal spaces of the ear.

Inner ear infections that lead to labyrinthitis are usually caused by a virus. Sometimes bacteria can cause it, too. The symptoms of viral and bacterial infections can be so similar that a doctor needs to confirm which type you have before they can treat it

The Inner Ear

Your ear is made up of three sections that are known as the outer, middle and inner ear. All three parts of the ear work together to enable us to hear, but the inner ear also plays a vital role in our sense of balance.

  • The outer ear includes the part that you can see along with the ear canal. These channel soundwaves into the ear so that you will be able to hear them.
  • The middle ear is made up of the eardrum and the space behind it, which contains the tiny bones that transmit vibrations from the ear drum to the inner ear.
  • The inner ear contains the cochlea, which receives the signals and transforms them into a message your brain can “hear”. The inner ear also contains the semicircular ducts, which send signals to the brain to tell us how our head and body are positioned. We use these signals to stay balanced. The cochlea and vestibular system (balance organs) are sometimes known together as the labyrinth.

Inner Ear Infection (Labyrinthitis / Vestibular Neuritis)

There is little research into the incidence and prevalence of labyrinthitis, however, in South Korea, the prevalence of vestibular dysfunction varied from 3.1% to 35.4%, and the incidence increased with age. Viral labyrinthitis is the most common form and is usually secondary to an upper respiratory tract infection. It typically presents in adults aged 30-60 and is twice as common in females. Suppurative bacterial labyrinthitis, as a complication of bacterial meningitis, is the commonest cause of deafness in children under 2, however, fortunately, this is vanishingly rare in the post-antibiotic era. Orogenic Suppurative labyrinthitis can occur at any age and is typically found in the presence of cholesteatoma or secondary to untreated otitis media.


The most common cause of labyrinthitis is a viral infection, such as from a cold or the flu, or infection with a virus from the herpes group of viruses, which causes chickenpoxshingles or cold sores. Sometimes an ear infection can lead to labyrinthitis.

Less commonly, a bacterial infection, such as meningitis or a middle ear infection, can cause labyrinthitis. Some autoimmune conditionsallergies and medications can lead to labyrinthitis. Your inner ear contains a system of loopy tubes and sacs called the labyrinth. It contains some fluid and hair cells. It also controls your balance and hearing. An infection can disrupt information that flows from this area to your brain.

In some cases, the problem that we call an inner ear infection isn’t actually an infection at all. Labyrinthitis can happen when the inner ear becomes inflamed for other reasons, for example, if you have an autoimmune condition that causes your immune system to mistakenly attack the tissue. You might need to get treatment for this underlying condition in order to prevent the inner ear problems from returning.

Symptoms of Inner Ear Infection

Since the inner ear plays key roles in both hearing and balance, any issues with these senses could be linked to an infection in this area. Infections in other parts of the ear are less likely to affect your hearing or balance, but the other symptoms can be similar.

Possible signs of an inner ear infection or inflammation include:

  • Vertigo, a sensation that you or your surroundings are spinning or moving around even when everything is still
  • Having trouble balancing or walking normally
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Problems with your hearing
  • Feeling like the ear is full or blocked
  • Tinnitus or ringing in your ears
  • Earache
  • Headaches
  • Fluid or pus coming from your ear

Inner ear infections can also be linked to other symptoms, depending on the source of the infection. For example, if the infection spread to the inner ear from your airways, you might also have a runny nose. In some cases, these other symptoms might be fading when the problems in your inner ear begin because the original infection might have been eliminated. You could also have more generalized symptoms of infection, such as a fever.


During your appointment, your doctor will get your medical history and listen as you describe your symptoms. They’ll also use an otoscope to get a detailed look at your outer ear and your eardrum.

An otoscope is a handheld device with a light and magnifying lens that doctors use to check the health of your ear. A pneumatic otoscope can emit a puff of air in the ear.

When air is pushed against your eardrum, the way the eardrum reacts can help diagnose the problem. If the eardrum moves easily, you may not have a middle ear infection, or at least it may not be serious. If the eardrum barely moves, it suggests that there is fluid pressing against it from the inside.

Another test used to diagnose and evaluate a possible ear infection is called tympanometry. It’s used to evaluate how well your ear is working. A simple hearing test may also be done, especially if it appears that an infection has caused some hearing loss.


If you have been diagnosed with labyrinthitis, you may not need any treatment.

In some cases, your doctor may prescribe medications such as:

  • corticosteroids to reduce inflammation in your inner ear
  • vestibular suppressants for severe vertigo
  • anti-nausea medications for nausea or vomiting

Inner ear infections will usually clear up by themselves within a few weeks, although some can last for six weeks or more. If the symptoms are severe or they don’t start to improve within a few days, then you should see a doctor. The doctor might prescribe antibiotics if the infection appears to be caused by bacteria. You will also be able to get help with any long term effects on your hearing or balance.

However, in most cases, you will be able to manage the symptoms of an inner ear infection at home. Taking an over the counter painkiller like ibuprofen should help relieve any pain and may help with the other symptoms by reducing the inflammation. Holding a warm compress against your ear can also be soothing. It’s also a good idea to stay upright as much as possible and to prop your head up while sleeping, as this can encourage any fluid in the ear to drain away.

Inner ear infection treatment usually involves medication to control symptoms, such as prescription and over-the-counter antihistamines, sedatives, and corticosteroids. Antibiotics may be prescribed if there is an active infection. The following are various vertigo treatment options:

  • Avoid quick change in position or sudden moves
  • Sit still during a vertigo attack
  • Get up slowly if lying down or seated
  • Avoid bright screens or flashing lights during a vertigo attack
  • Use low-light rather than darkness or bright lights


To help prevent an ear infection of any kind, follow these tips:

  • Keep your ears clean by washing them and using a cotton swab carefully. Make sure you dry your ears completely after swimming or taking a shower.
  • Don’t smoke, and avoid secondhand smoke as much as you can.
  • Manage your allergies by avoiding triggers and keeping up with allergy medications.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly, and try to avoid people who have colds or other upper respiratory problems.
  • Make sure your vaccines are up to date.
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