What is labyrinthitis?

Labyrinthitis is an inner ear condition that affects many people and can express itself through a wide range of symptoms. There are two forms of labyrinthitis: viral labyrinthitis and bacterial labyrinthitis. While both forms of labyrinthitis can have similar symptoms for the sufferer – which are caused by an interruption in the flow of messages to the brain as well as pain in the area – they have different root causes.

The name labyrinthitis refers to the part of the ear known as the labyrinth. The labyrinth sits inside the inner part of the ear and is therefore key to our hearing and balance functions. It can be described as a sort of maze made up of a series of channels, each filled with fluid and hair cells.

What is bacterial labyrinthitis?

Bacterial labyrinthitis can be caused by a few different things. While rare, germs may enter the inner ear from the surrounding environment outside the ear, due to a condition like meningitis or an upper respiratory infection. As such, children under two years old are more vulnerable to developing bacterial labyrinthitis.

However, a more common cause of bacterial labyrinthitis is an ongoing middle ear infection, toxins from which then cause an infection in the inner ear. Alternatively, bacteria can cause a bone infection, which, when in an area directly next to the inner ear, can sometimes cause labyrinthitis.

What is viral labyrinthitis?

Viral labyrinthitis is the more common form of labyrinthitis and is characterised by returning inflammation (usually in just one ear, rather than both ears simultaneously) that is less easily solved than bacterial labyrinthitis and has a less obvious cause. There is currently research being carried out on the viral links to the condition – these viruses include hepatitis, herpes, measles and mumps.

Is labyrinthitis the same thing as vestibular neuritis?

Labyrinthitis is often confused with a different condition known as vestibular neuritis. Both conditions are a form of inner ear infection that have similar symptoms but different causes. Labyrinthitis is an infection of the labyrinth, while vestibular neuritis relates to the vestibular nerve.

As a result, the ear itself is more physically affected by the inflammation caused by cases of labyrinthitis, rather than the effect on the nerve caused by vestibular neuritis. This means that the main difference between the two conditions is that in cases where a patient is affected by labyrinthitis, their hearing is compromised.

How will my doctor diagnose labyrinthitis?

Due to the variety of symptoms associated with labyrinthitis, it is important for the medical professional you see to rule out illnesses that might present themselves in similar ways. These illnesses include side effects from prescription drugs or legal and illegal substances, a head injury, brain or heart disease, or in some cases, a stroke. Your doctor will run health checks and ask appropriate questions to rule out these possibilities.

What are the symptoms of labyrinthitis?

When considering whether you might be being affected by labyrinthitis, there is a range of symptoms to look out for. If any of the below symptoms appear without any warning and are seriously affecting you, we advise visiting a hospital or walk-in centre as soon as possible.

These symptoms include affected or blurred vision, vomiting or nausea, effects on balance (or in some more extreme cases, dizziness and a sense of vertigo), and any loss of hearing or a ringing sensation in the ears.

What is the treatment and recovery process for labyrinthitis?

In some rare cases, labyrinthitis may cause longer-term balance issues – for individuals suffering from this, physical therapy will help with your recovery from the condition. It’s important in such cases to monitor balance closely and to expect some difficulties with balance in the future.

Many cases of labyrinthitis will get better on their own, but it is best to see a doctor who will be able to prescribe medicine to help with recovery. As an intermediary, you may be prescribed anti-nausea tablets to help with your symptoms, but medicines for the labyrinthitis itself will usually be anti-inflammatories or steroids, or antivirus medication.